One of my favorite instances of vivid storytelling in rap is Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push.” As a suburban skateboarding punk slowly transforming into a bona fide hip-hop head, Lupe’s story of love and freedom resonated with me on a deep level, leading to the realization that hip-hop could be just as, if not more, vivid as any novel I’d ever read.
From there, I went on to discover deep, evocative tales from artists like Aesop Rock, Dead Prez, Nas, Raekwon and The Roots. Black Star’s re-imagining of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” was a musical highlight of my youth, and OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’” showed me just how simultaneously poetic and lucid storytelling in hip-hop could be.
In the years since I first became acquainted with hip-hop, the genre has branched out into a staggering number of directions, and over the last decade specifically, there’s been a large emphasis placed on “vibe” rather than content. And while I love vibing out as much as the next person, it's important that we both highlight and elevate those artists who are keeping the ever-important art of storytelling alive.
Kendrick and J. Cole may get all the headlines—and for good reason, as they are currently two of the most prolific storytellers in the game—but there’s a slew of rappers more than capable of holding their own when it comes to storytelling, and many of them have largely gone unnoticed. In just the past 12 months, a new generation of rappers has showcased a profound understanding of what it takes to craft a compelling story within the structure of a rhyme scheme.
A$AP Ferg’s 2016 album Always Strive And Prosper, for example, contains a sequence of songs dealing with his upbringing in tandem with his uncle’s issues with drug addiction and mental illness. The three tracks “Meet My Crazy Uncle (Skit),” “Psycho” and “Let It Bang” are a powerful trio of storytelling, an attribute for which Ferg is criminally underappreciated. His recently released single “Tango” is yet another example of Ferg’s oft-overlooked storytelling abilities, and although “Dump Dump” might still get more spins in my car than any of those songs combined, the A$AP Mob member deserves far more praise for his ability to craft vulnerable, engaging stories in song form.
Hip-hop has always been capable of powerfully documenting the day to day terrors of poverty and the dysfunctional, incomplete families it can breed, and no present-day emcee captures that desolate picture like Danny Brown. Peppered in between Danny’s molly-fueled party anthems are gut-wrenchingly cinematic depictions of existence within a poverty-poisoned Detroit, his arresting portrayals of hunger and desperation engulfing listeners in the mental and emotional disarray created by his predatory environment. The first half of Danny’s debut album Old and much of last year’s follow-up, Atrocity Exhibition, are absolute triumphs of modern hip-hop storytelling.
Listen to “Torture” and tell me it doesn’t give you chills.
Of course, it’s impossible to highlight both A$AP Ferg and Danny Brown without mentioning ScHoolboy Q, who has collaborated with both of the aforementioned artists and whose performance on Ferg’s “Let It Bang” was a potent microcosm of the ghetto sagas Q has been weaving throughout his discography for years.
From Habits & Contradictions to Blank Face LP, Q has turned his past transgressions and the pain of his surroundings into gripping material. I’ve never lived anything close to what Q raps about, yet I still can’t listen to “Blessed” without crying no matter how many times I hear it.
Fellow West Coast emcees Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt have packed their respective discographies full of immersive storytelling, both of whom use their impressive vocabularies to excel in bleak narratives equally based in reality and abstract fiction. Earl’s underappreciated I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and Vince’s widely-praised Summertime ‘06 are both victorious continuations of legendary West Coast storytellers like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Murs and Rass Kass.
Your Old Droog
When it comes to straightforward, descriptive storytelling, Nas is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time, and Your Old Droog is a direct musical descendant of the GOAT in more ways than their vocal resemblance. Droog’s album Packs, released earlier this year, serves as the next logical step in the type of street-savvy tale-spinning that Nas and his peers originated. The album’s opener “GKAC (Gotta Kill a Cop)” is a wildly immersive tale of a PCP-smoking paranoid thug that starts picking off the boys in blue, and “My Girl Is A Boy” is a fantastic retelling of the classic “set up by my girlfriend” trope.
Across the culture, there are emcees that not only pay homage to the storied use of hip-hop as a means of chronicling the lives of its contributors but carry the torch even further, expanding the realm of what’s possible in hip-hop storytelling. Tyler, The Creator has crafted entire rap operas, Czarface is releasing albums with accompanying comic books, and even more vibe-centric artists like Future and Gucci Mane have crafted engaging tales in their music.
Hip-hop will always be a storytelling culture, it has been from the beginning and that will never change—even if the stories are only mumbled. The anecdotes and their raconteurs may change with each generation, but the art of storytelling in hip-hop will forever be a cornerstone of the culture.