As fans, we're quick to criticize artists who we believe don't put enough substance in their lyrics, but the question of whether or not we're actually listening to these lyrics often goes unaddressed.
In today's trap heavy landscape, it doesn't take long to find someone to admit they listen to music more for the beat than the lyrics. While there's no single measurement to determine how closely listeners are paying attention, in general, research has shown that people—millennials, especially—tend to gravitate toward relatable stories, ideas, and individuals.
Due in part to the rise of social media, it’s easier than ever to pick and choose what we see and hear, where we get our information and from whom. The stronger the connection, the more willing we are to engage with the content presented to us and lock it into memory.
So, what type of artists do listeners connect with the most?
According to research, there’s a “values revolution” taking place among millennials and young people, which happens to be hip-hop’s core demographic. In a survey conducted in 2015, per Global Tolerance, 84% of millennials “consider it their duty to make a positive difference” in the world, through both their lifestyle and their work. Following this logic, millennials connect the most with artists who use their music as a tool to push for social change; i.e., 'conscious rappers.' This is the same ideology that made rock & roll such a popular genre among the baby boomer age group, as its rebellious nature meshed beautifully with the anti-establishment views of young people at the time.
In an attempt to unscientifically back up this theory, I looked at four artists in each of hip-hop’s three biggest sub-genres and compared their Spotify plays counts to their Genius lyric views. Those in the vein of 'conscious rap' (Kendrick Lamar, Common, Mick Jenkins, and J. Cole) had the highest percentage of fans (1.48%) who looked up song lyrics, those making hard-nosed, street-based hip-hop (Dave East, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, and Freddie Gibbs) came in second (1.15%), and artists in the realm of trap and 'mumble rap' (Future, Kodak Black, Lil Uzi Vert, and Desiigner) had the least (0.79%). Again, this is obviously not an exact science—nor is it my intention to present it as such—but if you scroll through the lyrics of both J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only and Future’s recently-released self-titled album, you’ll find a much heavier dose of annotations on the former.
A prime example of an artist who sees the bigger picture in his music and who has been rewarded accordingly is Big K.R.I.T.. Despite a slew of problems during his multi-year tenure at former label home Def Jam, which could have castrated the career of a weaker talent, K.R.I.T. has maintained an ultra-loyal fan base by never wavering from his core story.
For a California-born kid like myself who has long been enamored with language and wordplay, K.R.I.T. opened my eyes to a whole new world of southern lyricism. 4EvaNaDay changed the way I viewed music made in the south in the wake of a dying crunk movement, and judging by the discourse on his outstanding AMA on Reddit, there are plenty of others who also connected with the King Remembered In Time in the exact same fashion.
Nipsey Hussle entered the rap game roughly around the same time as Big K.R.I.T. and over the past seven years, the Crenshaw native has seemingly found more success in the underground community than in the mainstream. Though he has yet to release a single studio album, a steady stream of free (and often limited edition) mixtapes have earned Nipsey a significant following and built huge anticipation for his long awaited debut, Victory Lap.
His story isn’t as unique as his Mississippi-bred companion—there are plenty of artists who rap about the perils of street life and smoking weed to forget the perils of street life—but Nipsey's found success via his authenticity or the perception that he’s more “real” than others who are saying the same thing. While it’d be a stretch to say his fans aren’t “listening” to him, Nipsey is a perfect example of an artist whose style, as an individual, has had a direct impact on the transference of his substance.
With more artists than ever putting out music in the digital age—thank you, Internet!—an original story or a familiar story presented in an original way could make or break whether fans actually listening to our favorite rappers instead of just hearing them.