Since the Ferguson, Missouri protests last August, there have been an increasing number of songs addressing socio-political issues like overzealous law enforcement and economic inequality. But even before the powder keg explosion that was #Ferguson, the trend towards a newfound hip-hop consciousness seemed imminent.
Of all the various groups that have suffered as a result of declining music revenue, the urban music industry may have suffered the worst in terms of raw sales. No rap albums went gold during the calendar year of 2014. (However, late December releases such as J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint have since earned the mark.) And until Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” set off a fresh wave of top 40-bound pseudo-trap anthems, pop radio seemed wholly unforgiving to rap music, and black rappers in particular. There were no number-one singles by the latter in 2013 (unless you count T.I.’s assist to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”) In 2014, radio only seemed to make room for white rappers such as Eminem and Iggy Azalea.
There are wider cultural forces at work. As people grow more accustomed to being interconnected through technology, especially social media, they’ve begun using it as a platform for activism. The world of music reflects that shift as well. More subtly, however, the evolving relationship between rap and mainstream acceptance has forced many artists to wonder if their music means anything more than a conduit for money and success.
Of course, rap’s current generation (2008-present) has made millions from losing themselves in self-absorbed soliloquies about the price of fame. But some have begun to ask more pointed questions. “Same thing my n*gga Elvis did with rock ‘n’ roll/ Justin Timberlake, Eminem, then Macklemore,” raps J Cole on “Fire Squad.” “Look around, my n*gga, white people have snatched the sound.” Some misinterpreted J Cole’s lines as a diss, but he was really wondering if his skin color had become an obstacle to going pop. Kanye West’s controversial Yeezus mulled over the same issues. From Lil Boosie’s “Crazy” to Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” much of recent rap argues implicitly for the value of black identity in all its forms, and questions why it became devalued in the music industry.
#Ferguson highlighted more pressing concerns, of course, such as whether a teenager of color can walk down the street without getting harassed and killed by the police. Regardless, it’s clear that rap artists want to address their physical and mental survival. That must be welcome news for anyone who complains about the genre’s decades-long slide into a decadent refrain of money, cash, and hoes. But I’d counter that critics who believe that canard don’t pay close enough attention to all of rap music, and not just its most popular forms. Now, with widely publicized works like Run the Jewels’ RTJ2 and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, we have definitive proof of rap’s new consciousness, whether radio stations decide to play it or not.
Last Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar briefly crashed the Internet by issuing To Pimp a Butterfly a week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services. His Top Dawg Entertainment management protested loudly at Interscope “fucking up” the release. But since the well-timed leak merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick’s third album (fourth if you count his Overly Dedicated mixtape) as planned.
Days later, it’s clear that Kendrick’s newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as pigmentation and mind state (see Clover Hope’s Jezebel.com essay “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly”), and noted as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal (a la Joe Coscarelli’s New York Times profile “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity”). It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides, and sample guides, virtual Cliff Notes for an album in which Kendrick’s performance is as crucial as the themes he conveys.