From its inception, hip-hop has been both a documentation and an escape from its contributors’ environments. That innate duality, of both the culture and its musical efforts, has long been the fuel for generational arguments over the difference between documenting and glorifying, but it has also enabled hip-hop to reach the ears of millions and become the dominant musical genre in America.
The duality of hip-hop is, after all, not unlike the duality of the country where it was created. Despite boundless opportunities—”the American dream”—creators cannot simply escape the reality of their upbringing, which is often steeped in extreme violence.
The reason hip-hop has become the musical voice of this country is the many of the culture’s best offerings serve as an unflinchingly accurate reflection of the unspoken murky moral grounds America’s ideals truly rest upon.
In a recent interview with Mass Appeal, rising hip-hop artist YoungBoy Never Broke Again, 17, was asked what advice he would give his younger self, and his comments offered a succinct analysis of the tightrope many artists are forced to walk as they attempt to build a sustainable future.
"I’d tell that kid, 'Start focusing on the music more instead of making music and trying to really live that life.' I think I would have dodged jail."
So many of hip-hop’s most promising artists are exactly that because of their captivating documentation of the same reality that threatens to end both their rise to success and, potentially, their life. Some of hip-hop’s greatest contributors (JAY-Z, Nas, Raekwon) have used their tales of street life and its inherent danger as a springboard to a life of prosperity, while others (Lil Snupe, Bobby Shmurda, Max B) have succumbed to those same dangers before managing to fully escape from their past.
Unfortunately, the very gift that some young men and women are able to craft out of the most hardened, hostile environments is ultimately a curse if not successfully transitioned into a life that forsakes its roots. In the case of NBA YoungBoy, who has so far barely escaped the reality that makes his music so captivating by beating an attempted first-degree murder charge, he truly believes that music was his only ticket out.
While this narrative has been integral to hip-hop’s rise to a global cultural force, and there have been countless artists that have been able to turn their back on the curse of street life while still using it as an inspiration for their gift, as someone who’s never lived anything close to “that life,” I’m extremely hesitant to tell someone else what they should or shouldn’t do to break free from hellish conditions.
The balancing act between chronicling life in the streets and escaping it has always been necessary to hip-hop’s harrowing and diverse perspective, and it's not exactly as simple, cut and dry as signing a seven-figure record deal and calling up a moving company to come and get all your shit, but electing to live amongst the struggle can often result in a jail sentence—or worse—a death sentence.