Kanye West & Hip-Hop's Transformation from Conscious to Woke

If you don’t believe me, then run back Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”
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If you don’t believe me, then run back Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”

Once upon a time, I was a purist—a rappity rap, backpack, conscious rap lover. Illmatic, Black on Both Sides and Be were in constant rotation. I renounced everything that wasn’t ablaze with socio-political rage and music that didn’t speak to my mind wasn’t getting played.

In 2004, The College Dropout shattered that dogma—for me and for the rest of hip-hop. Kanye bridged the gap between music with substance and music we could wyle out to, at a time when those thoughts were at odds with each other. He spit socio-political bars over his own hot ass beats and tapped a variety of rappers—from Freeway to Common to Twista to Jay Z—to guest on his seminal debut.

Later that year, he even managed to get Jay, Busta Rhymes and Mos Def on a remix of Talib Kweli’s “Get By.” And in 2005, Kanye produced Common’s Be, a socially conscious album that belongs in the pantheon of rap. He connected these worlds with ease.

In the beginning, conscious rap was refreshing, but as time went on, felt stifling: The subgenre’s intent was to better you, but it also had this ability to weigh you down. The Ye Effect gave us some respite; it said that being aware and having a good time weren’t mutually exclusive—you can have one with the other. Rap’s new generation holds that to be self-evident, whether or not they know that this was Kanye’s doing.

What was called conscious in the early days has evolved into something called "woke," a term that aptly describes rap’s new generation. It’s what Kanye was getting at. The term derives from “stay woke,” a phrase popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement. "Woke" encompasses conscious rap’s mindfulness, to be informed about what’s happening in your community—but "woke" also embraces the turn up.

Older listeners, who grew up in the trenches of the pantheon, often believe that the new wave doesn’t care about socio-political issues. But records like YG’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots,” and Mick Jenkins’ “Drowning” poke holes in that theory—as does Metro Boomin, super producer to some of our favorite trap rappers, who’s been openly vocal about his political beliefs.

Youth culture has always been pegged to fun, but only more recently has the term "woke" evolved to embody both a good time and socio-political awareness. While many conscious rappers weren’t able to adequately articulate the two together, the new wave does so with ease, spitting about social injustices in the same breath as turning up. That’s something that appeals to youth culture and is youth culture.

If you don’t believe me, then run back Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”