For the better part of its history, the conversation surrounding the morality of hip-hop has always played, ironically, like a broken record.
That record always begins with a similar tune, one of faux concern and moral grandstanding by its biggest critics, followed by either an outcry for change or denial of hip-hop's cultural impact, only for the record to eventually skip. The stylus is reset, the song begins again, and we continuously make the same mistake every single time.
A week ago, Billboard published an interview with pop star Miley Cyrus, in which she vehemently states her musical stylings have changed from her well-known attempts at a hip-hop/pop crossover to more traditional, pop/rock creations. In tow were several pointed shots at current hip-hop music, in which Cyrus blames the vulgarity and vanity of rap music for why she feels compelled to transition her music in a different direction. In her words, “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’—I am so not into that.”
Once again, the endless narrative of hip-hop’s morality began its loop.
The misappropriation of hip-hop by pop artists carries very little nuance, sadly. As Complex's Ross Scarano expertly examined in 2016, pop artists, specifically white pop artists such as Post Malone and Justin Bieber, have always had the privilege of stepping into hip-hop when it suits them the best, while ultimately having the even greater privilege of breaking away from it when the well runs dry.
Miley Cyrus’ case bears much of the same resemblance. Look no further than her Bangerz album, executive produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, with features from Big Sean, Future, and French Montana. According to Cyrus, those same influences that brought about her most lucrative and successful album not affiliated with her Hannah Montana show are too much of a moral burden to bear these days.
Even more interesting than her initial comments to Billboard is Cyrus’ subsequent apology, in which she rephrased her initial stance on rap by stating that she was “gravitating more towards uplifting, conscious rap.”
In so many words, Cyrus went on to say that she is still a fan of all genres of music, but that at this point in time, she feels the “younger generation needs to hear positive powerful lyrics.”
And we've reached the skip in the record. It's the moment when the misappropriation of hip-hop by pop artists is swept away by an undertow of moral self-righteousness, troubling racial undertones, and the double standard that surrounds hip-hop lyrics. The ugly head of “conscious rap” rears its ugly, manipulative head, and around we go.
The idea of “conscious rap” has always been an abstract one at best. It’s rarely used in a productive manner, and most often only serves as the catalyst for rap’s biggest critics to define what rap music “should” be without ever talking about specifics. It’s an ill-defined level of social and political awareness, too, often confused with that of being “better” or more “positive” rap, without the conversation surrounding why those levels of consciousness are more valuable being unpacked.
The purpose of that abstraction more than likely stems from the fact “conscious rap” is less an echelon of music that fans and critics alike hope hip-hop’s biggest artists will one day achieve, and more a tool used by artists to deflect the conversation away from actual progress in the way of lyrical analysis. A never-ending double standard allows for critics of hip-hop, even those like Cyrus who was actually complicit in creating such music, to pick and choose which artists they deem unfit to carry the torch for “conscious rap.”
The “conscious rap” argument distorts the conversation, injecting a false sense of objectivity about progressive and purposeful lyrics into the subjective medium of music, and one’s particular taste in rap music.
That act of condemnation is no more apparent than in Cyrus’ initial interview in which she quotes Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” as an example of socially progressive rap. She says, “But I also love that Kendrick song: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore.”
Despite the fact that her quote reeks of Fox News rhetoric, Cyrus’ justification for enjoying Kendrick's music while indicting other unnamed rappers is entirely problematic.
Most striking is the specific example Miley cites, which conflates Kendrick’s earnestness about a woman’s appearance with that of the socially progressive rapper, while also failing to point out how Kendrick also raps lyrics like “Ooh that pussy good, won’t you sit it on my taste bloods” in the very same song.
Furthermore, as writer Garfield Hylton examined earlier this year, the crowning of rappers like Kendrick Lamar as “conscious” or “woke” seldom works as an objective analysis of what should be considered as progressive or destructive rap, as the labeling of “conscious rap” may, in fact, be just as detrimental.
Cyrus, like the many other critical voices in hip-hop culture during the many iterations of this same conversation, also seems to confuse the idea of vulgar rap lyrics and misogyny in rap. Quotes like “Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock” carry the conversation away from addressing actual instances of misogyny in rap. It plays as a distraction from the truth instead of an unveiling of the problematic relationship rap music has with women.
Instead, Cyrus only serves up an example of vulgar language—stereotypical lyrics about expensive cars and jewelry—and the very casual disownment of an entire genre of music on faulty grounds.
What Miley Cyrus said will be said again, eventually, and like every time those words have been uttered before, the conversation we have will become dismantled. It will pit the Kendrick Lamars of the rap world against the Rich Homie Quans within a moral arena in which we collectively dissect who the progressive and regressive rapper actually is. Artists like Miley Cyrus, and what can best be described as a cognitive dissonance with hip-hop, will continue to seek reassurance that morality and musical taste are one and the same, without ever looking in the mirror to see how they may have inflated those same narratives.
As with past critics who fell into this same discussion of “conscious rap,” Miley Cyrus doesn’t care if the argument falls apart. Sooner or later, someone’s going to start the record over again.