Rap music has become one of the principle vehicles by which African Americans express their views of the world, attempting to create a sense of order out of the mayhem and disorder of contemporary urban life. Such efforts, however, have not been without severe contradictions.
—Ernest Allen, Jr.
‘Making the Strong Survive: The Contours and Contradictions of Message Rap’ (1996)
In 1996 the subgenre known as gangsta rap was steadily emancipating itself from the hip hop roots that birthed it. The rap group N.W.A, arguably the progenitors that elevated gangsta rap from the underground to the mainstream with the 1988 release of the shockingly explicit, pull-no-punches Straight Outta Compton, had already broken up by 1991 and, as a result, disseminated the art and culture of gangsta rap throughout Los Angeles and, not too much later, the rest of the world.
‘Gangsta rap,’ Robin D. G. Kelley wrote, ‘unintentionally plays the same role as the blaxploitation films of the 1970s or, for that matter, the gangster films of any generation. It attracts listeners for whom the ghetto is a place of adventure, unbridled violence, and erotic fantasy, or an imaginary alternative to suburban boredom.’ Gangsta rap reached its pinnacle during the mid-nineties with the rise of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. on opposite sides of the country. When both rappers released highly successful albums, both found themselves under the microscope of censorship stalwarts like C. Dolores Tucker and Tipper Gore, both found themselves at the centre of a coastal rap feud, and both were subsequently murdered by gun violence.
The deaths of Shakur and Wallace coincided with yet another shift within the rap community, one that turned its back slightly on the violent rage of the hood that had begun taking out its leaders, one by one. While one faction of the rap community began setting its sights almost solely on mansions, cars, and the hedonistic glorification of money, another faction emerged to oppose the largely nihilistic, misogynistic, and for the most part nonpolitical music of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and other mainstream gangsta rappers. Ernest Allen, Jr.’s essay on message rap, quoted at the beginning of this article, examines the successors to rap’s first political group, Public Enemy, charting the rise of message rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions, and XCLAN. Allen pinpoints message rap’s roots in the growing influence of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and Clarence 13X’s Five-Percent Nation on working- and lower-class black males, most prominently on the east coast.
As gangsta rap grew more commercialised—and, as a result, more caricatured—the humility of harsh hood realities was a concept that some listeners eagerly digested. For those listeners, message rap regained hip hop’s legitimacy. By the end of his essay, however, Allen is already lamenting message rap’s decline. Despite message rap gaining respect from devout listeners, it gained considerably less money and attention from mainstream listeners. According to Allen’s assessment, message rap struggled and subsequently failed to achieve the same kind of catch-fire impact that gangsta rap had achieved; by 1993 a handful of message rappers were either relegated to the underground—if they didn’t prefer to stay there in the first place—or they disappeared altogether.
Allen asserts that the contradictions latent in message rap are perhaps inherently difficult or even impossible to overcome. In contrast, gangsta rap’s relative one-dimensionality is easier to label, easier to swallow, and thus easier to sell. In the last paragraph, Allen offers message rap a eulogy:
With message rap pushed off the charts, the rap genre today tends to be dominated by gangsta themes. But the results were predictable: Without an external mass political movement to serve as a guidepost, young message rappers, acting alone, proved incapable of probing deeper into the social content of their art. Moreover, an artistic movement that gave birth to African American political consciousness in the eighties has also served as an obstacle to its further development.
While rappers like Shakur, Nas, KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, and Rakim were all able to maintain a hardness that somehow didn’t compromise the messages they were putting out, the contradictions of which Allen spoke seemed to affect each of them in different ways. KRS-One and Rakim have remained largely underground artists throughout their careers; Nas dabbled in more commercial-friendly material during the middle of his career and was thus ostracised for it; Shakur’s unique ability to traverse the gangsta-message rap spectrum, as well as his overall fame and legacy, would not be possible without his other, more nihilistic tracks, not to mention his well-documented run-ins with the law as well as his untimely fate.
Still, the yin that message rap contributed to the yang of gangsta rap (or should that be switched around?) helped ensure rap’s continued staying power, in addition to the blueprint for the star of a future generation.
Two quotes from ‘Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and the Postindustrial Los Angeles’ (1996), by Robin D. G. Kelley:
1. Although the use of first-person narratives is rooted in a long tradition of black aesthetic practices, the use of ‘I’ to signify both personal and collective experiences also enables gangsta rappers to navigate a complicated course between what social scientists call ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. In gangsta rap there is almost always a relationship between the conditions in which characters live and the decisions they make.
2. To be a real n**** is to have been a product of the ghetto. Thus by linking their identity to the ‘hood instead of simply to skin color, gangsta rappers acknowledge the limitations of racial politics—black middle-class reformism as well as black nationalism.
Kendrick Lamar’s music strangely inhabits that old business mantra of ‘Give the people what they want’ but in less obvious terms than what they might expect. His 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly gives you a sort of aural tapestry, one that superimposes ‘giving the people what they want’ with ‘giving the people what they need.’ Hip hop listeners, at large, have always hungered for authenticity, an aspect that has set the genre apart since its inception. Fans at large have developed a keen, if not overly sensitive, radar for what is deemed authentic, which not only informs what a ‘good’ rap effort is but also illustrates the ongoing vacillations between comfort and discomfort for listeners who, say, aren’t black and/or know nothing of the hood. We’re not only talking about hip hop’s enormous white fan base, but also the people that inform that fan base, such as critics, academics, and other figures in the music business, whatever the colour of their skin might be.
Hip hop, which started rather humbly on the streets and playgrounds of the South Bronx in the seventies, has since become a global phenomenon, permeating not only music but other aspects of culture, from film to fashion. More importantly, its prominence made hip hop yet another black music (along with blues and jazz) to be bent and pulled by the hands of co-option. While most of those hands, unsurprisingly, have been white, they’ve belonged to a number of different types of people, from record industry CEOs to music producers to influential members of the media to suburban listeners. Hands of darker tone have struggled to tug their music back, and the figures that make up the object of desire—the rappers themselves—have found themselves in a unique position, one that seemed to inhabit both power and subjugation simultaneously.
It has happened to many successful rappers before Lamar, and the success of good kid almost ensured a reservation for the young rapper, who was only 25 when his success brought fame with it. Furthermore, Lamar finds himself in another unique ‘double standing,’ that of being a representative of the hood as well as a representative of mainstream music, one of the biggest entertainment moneymakers of the last century. If good kid was Lamar’s story of a boy from the hood, then Butterfly might be the story of a man coming out of it, inhabiting a new place, and dealing with the new problems that one can only find when pulled between two worlds. (It is even difficult to say which one represents the cocoon of Lamar’s album-length caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor. Perhaps both?) In Lamar fashion, he pulls off the difficult trick of superimposing one world over the other, ultimately focusing on the tether that has connected both worlds, namely: how the latter has made profit out of exploiting, or pimping, the former.
Lamar’s story of the caterpillar in the cocoon really begins with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Like his predecessors in Shakur, Nas, KRS-One, and Rakim, Lamar is able to traverse the spectral pole between gangsta rap and message rap, but perhaps more often than those rappers of yore, Lamar superimposes rather than traverses the opposite ends, and often in the same track. Perhaps the most vivid example on good kid is the track ‘The Art of Peer Pressure‘, which opens with a minute-long intro that carries a groove that has since been associated with west coast gangsta rap since Dr. Dre first sat in the producer’s chair: the P-Funk-inspired syncopation, the laid back drums, and that whizzing synthesizer that in the mind can conjure images of outdoor BBQs and police choppers overhead. (It’s the same sound that cuts through Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s (as he was known then) Doggystyle, onward through the G-Funk nineties to find itself trying to sneak onto Lamar’s 2012 album.) But the track shifts gears after the first minute, a new and ominous beat begins, and here you start to understand why Lamar’s talent for storytelling has been so often discussed.
For all the criticism that gangsta rap has endured for its outlandish nihilism, it wasn’t completely void of message, at least not in its beginning stages. While gangsta rap didn’t result from any singular event, the 1992 South Central riots following the Rodney King incident somehow managed to frame Los Angeles gangsta rap in a specific kind of reality. N.W.A’s notorious 1988 track ‘Fuck Tha Police’ depicted a certain struggle that happened more often than anyone who wasn’t black or brown knew. The Rodney King beating proved to be a horrific example of that struggle; the fact that it was captured on camera and the trial gaining national attention solidified just one particular struggle that gangsta rap documented.
The rapper Ice Cube, who co-wrote and co-performed on the N.W.A track, told MTV in 1992, ‘[Police brutality has] been happening to us for years. It’s just we didn’t have a camcorder every time it happened.’ (Robin D. G. Kelley adds: ‘Subsequently, Cube recorded “Who Got the Camera?” on the 1992 album The Predator, a hilarious track in which he asks the police brutalizing him to hit him once more in order to get the event on film.’) In the aftermath of the trial, when all four police officers involved in the beating were acquitted of charges, America and the rest of the world laid witness to another horrific scene, one of the worst city-wide riots in American history. Somewhere between King getting attacked and a white truck driver being dragged out of his truck and beaten, the hood suddenly had a strong visual element. Gangsta rap, for better or for worse, held the camcorder steady and kept rolling.
If N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton was gangsta rap’s camcorder, then Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is the hood on a strip of film, which would make To Pimp a Butterfly more like immersive theatre. The album at times feels a lot like listening to a play, with Lamar’s talent for storytelling evolving to include an ability to weave a quilted pastiche of music and song, along with skits, poems, and movements within tracks, which makes listening a multidimensional experience.
Furthermore, the type of storytelling for which Lamar was endlessly praised on good kid is less prominent on Butterfly. Rare, though not entirely gone, are the cinematic nuances and bits of detail that painted his last album so distinctly; substituted in Butterfly are the uncomfortable details of the present. Perhaps the 25-year-old who wrote good kid was able to dress the hardships and trauma of his adolescence with the romance that survival and retrospect both allow. In Butterfly, the triumph of survival transforms into survivor’s guilt. Lamar describes Butterfly as ‘fearful’; he still paints pictures in Butterfly, but they are even darker, more ominous in their abstractness, than the already stark episodes of good kid. His looking-back moments have often focused in on moments that illustrated a supreme racism that hasn’t so much lessened as it has mutated in different forms today. It is perhaps this reason that Lamar hardly looks ahead on Butterfly; he seems to have trouble looking past the plight of black people as it currently stands. There are moments on the album where Lamar illustrates a very specific position, somewhere between fear and hopelessness, evoking the kind of social and economic oppression that actually makes it hurt to dream. In ‘Institutionalized‘ a chorus of black voices sing:
If I was the president
I’d pay my momma’s rent
Free my homies and them
Bulletproof my Chevy doors
Lay in the White House
And get hiiiiiiiiiigh oh Lord
Who ever thought?
Massuh, take duh chains off me!
Upon Butterfly‘s release, an NPR piece equated Lamar’s effort with that of attempting to write the Great American Novel. To me, of course, it feels more like the Great American Play, of the Lorraine Hansberry/August Wilson tradition, if we were to call it anything other than what it is quickly proving itself to be: the Great American Album. However, I do see some of the merits of comparing Lamar to storytellers like Hansberry, William Faulkner, and even non-American literary storytellers, particularly due to Lamar’s increasing skill in using multiple narratives to tell his stories. If good kid was Lamar’s Dubliners, then why not argue that Butterfly is his Ulysses? After all, the voices and narratives, starkly discernable throughout the episodic good kid, are dizzyingly difficult to tell apart in Butterfly. The listener can never really fully grasp who is speaking; on top of that, certain moments suggest that Lamar is addressing himself, despite using ‘you’ rather than ‘I’ or ‘me’, as if rapping to the man he sees in a mirror.
The most explicit example of this is the track ‘u‘, a difficult song to swallow because of the self-hatred evoked throughout. In it, Lamar addresses ‘u’, but he is almost undeniably addressing himself. In an interview with Rob Markman on MTV, Lamar sums up the album as an exploratory journey navigating the depths of leadership, a position with which he increasingly identifies as his fame builds, a responsibility that he acknowledges seriously, already cognizant of the pitfalls it may bear. When discussing the track, Markdown asks, almost afraid of the answer, how much of ‘u’ exercises poetic license. After all, the track strips bare the leader, and what you see is a man struggling with leadership, survivor’s guilt, and the notion that escaping the hood means leaving your loved ones behind.
‘u’ is meant to be the mirror track to ‘i‘, Butterfly‘s uplifting first single, released six months before the rest of the album. Arguably, Lamar didn’t experience any sort of critical backlash until he released ‘i’, which received mixed reviews in general, the negative portion most likely a result of the track’s radio-friendly sound. Still, Lamar always intended to include ‘i’ on the album. He promoted it as a single, performed it in concert and on television appearances, and even won two Grammys for it. In terms of hardware and accolades ‘i’ has already become Lamar’s most successful song, despite being the one for which he’d receive the most flack.
What’s interesting is how different ‘i’ sounds within its place on the album as opposed to on its own. Lamar pulls a truly radical move: he doesn’t include his most successful, Grammy-winning song on the album… at least not the version we were all expecting to hear. Instead he includes a live version, one that gets interrupted midway through because a fight breaks out in the crowd. You hear everything: the scuffle, the heat, and then you hear the music cut and Lamar attempting to command the men to stop. It takes awhile, and it takes much more than a simple plea; instead, Lamar probes right through to the heart of the matter, not only asking the men ‘How many n****s we done lost?’ but demanding the men answer him. Lamar’s bravery in looking himself in the mirror to accentuate his most deeply-entrenched characteristics translates to asking his fellow black men to do the same. He succeeds in stopping the fight, and the show continues, with Kendrick Lamar leading.