The Return of So-Called “Conscious Rap” in Trump’s New America
The day after the November presidential election, the internet was overflowing with unsolicited analysis from unqualified people, desperately seeking a way to cope with the outcome. One of the frequently repeated sentiments that stood out amongst this frantic search for silver linings was a vague notion that this forthcoming period of abject horror would undoubtedly lead to the creation of a lot of great art.
A few weeks into Trump’s presidency, it remains to be seen whether this will be the case, but nonetheless, the suggestion struck me as a rather tone-deaf given the circumstances. It felt a bit like my hypothetical spouse had died in a tragic skydiving accident, and as some sort of weird penance for my loss, the skydiving company had offered to repair her parachute and give it to me as a keepsake. Sure, I’d probably take the parachute as a memento, but given a choice, I’d much rather the love of my life hadn’t been horrifically killed. Similarly, in a political climate where a large number of people are essentially guaranteed to lose their civil liberties, the inspiration of a few great short films seems like a rather hollow consolation prize.
Callousness aside, it’d be difficult to argue against the precedent that oppression breeds transcendent art. Hip-hop music, in particular, is a great example of this phenomenon, having historically emerged out of the socioeconomic destitution permeating large parts of the Black community. Much of the genre's classic music, from Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick Lamar, has been informed—at least in part—by this struggle.
In recent years, however, so-called “conscious rap” has been pushed to the margins of the commercial sphere, in favor of an increasingly solipsistic brand of rap. Even the artists whose music may have traditionally been branded as “conscious” ten years ago are quick to disavow the label altogether, lamenting its reductive connotations. Kendrick Lamar has stated that he finds the term to be limiting, while Vince Staples once tweeted “I am highly offended by the term conscious rap don't associate me with that.”
It doesn’t take a detective’s skills of deductive reasoning to figure out why this might be the case. Attempts to make well-regarded “conscious rap” are burdened by an unreasonable cocktail of expectations. To do so, an artist must strike an almost unattainable balance between nuanced social commentary, musical accessibility, and earnest intention. Listeners want to hear a rapper dissect social issues, but they loathe the feeling of being preached to. They demand that artists serve as the mouthpiece of the disenfranchised while packaging their militant ideas within a party-ready aesthetic. The odds of success are dramatically stacked against any artist who tries, much like an unsuspecting customer standing in line at a carnival game kiosk. Hip-hop audiences, meanwhile, are the deceptive carnies, yelling, “Step on up! Step on up! Win a 6-foot tall plush toy and become the savior of hip-hop,” all the while smirking maliciously, knowing that the diameter of the ball is larger than the hoop they have to throw it through to win.
Getting too wrapped up in reconciling these expectations would seem to belie the fundamental purpose of making message-driven music—to deliver a message. In the rare case where an artist manages to successfully walk this tightrope, it becomes incredibly easy for listeners to miss the point. Consider, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s song “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a hit record about alcoholism and peer pressure that has undoubtedly been playing at a party while a frat dude said to his friend, “come on bro, just take a shot with me.”
For as much as audiences demand it to be, maybe “conscious rap” music just shouldn’t be fun to listen to. Maybe it’s the responsibility of listeners to acknowledge that there’s something slightly distasteful about wanting to “turn up” to a song about the prison industrial complex.
In the age of Trump, I wonder if listeners might finally be ready to turn this corner. The second term of Obama’s presidency brought with it some indication that the wheels for this shift are already in motion. A multitude of well-publicized incidents of police profiling and brutality fostered widespread feelings of anger and sadness, and audiences were correspondingly much more inclined to embrace the music inspired by these emotions. It would appear that this is a fundamental distinction that between successful and unsuccessful message-driven music. The best of it taps into a visceral feeling of injustice that audiences can connect to, while the worst of it misses this mark altogether, reeking of insincerity and performative righteousness. It’s the key difference between music made by Run The Jewels and music made by Macklemore, or for that matter, music made by Common in 1997 and music made by Common in 2011.
If the state of my Twitter feed is any indication, it seems like the age of Trump has brought with it a newly invigorated, readily accessible reservoir of injustice for artists to tap into. Society at large is angry and politically engaged in a way that they haven’t been in quite some time.
It’s why a song like YG’s “FDT” works so well. Sure, it’s catchy enough to avoid feeling like a Noam Chomsky lecture, but it’s also angry; music that could foreseeably be chanted at a protest. I doubt YG himself would classify the song as “conscious,” but the more important takeaway is that he felt strongly enough to make a song with a message, and he didn’t feel the need to distance himself from this fact. It’s still too early to tell whether the success of this song will be predictive of a larger trend—or whether society will eventually get exhausted from its sudden excess of “wokeness” and go back to using music purely as a form of escapism—but, as of now, it seems like artists need an outlet for their emotions, and listeners are more ready to embrace these sentiments than they have been in quite some time.
By Hershal Pandya, a freelance writer based in Toronto. He's on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty