Hip-Hop's Never-Ending Search for Someone to Believe In

Who do you believe in?
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DMX, Diddy, Kanye, 2019

“If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is a grass in the beginning.” —Vincent van Gogh

Rather inspired by redemption, the desire of immortality, or the hope of marriage, when honest belief is captured in rap, no matter the theme, it's cherished because hip-hop feeds, if only for a fleeting moment, that void in all humans searching for something, or someone to believe in.

On January 24, after spending one year behind bars at West Virginia’s Gilmer Federal Correctional Institution on charges of tax evasion, the steel doors opened for Earl Simmons, better known as rap legend DMX, to make his exit. He steps forward with purpose: a new album announced, a new tour promised, still with us, still fighting.

The fight is what’s engraved in “Slippin’,” the crown jewel scripture of DMX’s biblical discography. The burgeoning rapper was 28 years old when “Slippin’” and his sophomore album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, were released. There was a sense of enormity to DMX then, in his physique, voice, and star power the size of a towering skyscraper. Full of youth and boundless possibilities.

In the song's third verse, we find DMX staring at the TV, realizing that it could be him on the screen. He promises to get clean for his son and that his woman, who has remained by his side, will be rewarded for her unyielding support. He makes it sound so simple, so easy. 

For a temporary moment in history, DMX believed in his heart of hearts that he would overcome and that fewer slip-ups awaited in the unpredictable days ahead. In the hearts of listeners, they believed as well. There was no reason not to. “Slippin’” was an affirmation that he was leaving roads covered by thrones for a path coated in gold. Not because of what he said, but in how he said it.

Twenty-five years on, the song still contains a scarred man’s hope for the future. Unfortunately, overcoming an obstacle as large as addiction is a lifelong battle. Surely, “getting back up” still rings in his mind to this day. Even though X's status as hip-hop’s biggest rapper was brief, it’s the passionate self-belief on display on “Slippin’” that successfully crystallized X’s contagious optimism in the ether of time. Conviction, it's the difference between being heard and being felt. 

A little over two months after the tragic murder of The Notorious B.I.GPuff Daddy, a close friend and the founder of Bad Boy Records, released the timeless single, “I'll Be Missing You.” It’s a beautiful tribute to his fallen comrade, one that represented a unified reaction to such an untimely loss. During the record's closing bridge sung by 112, Puffy says, “And we won't stop, 'cause we can't stop.” It’s a promise-turned-mantra that foretold what he wanted the world to know. He wasn’t ready to be remembered in the past tense. 

First, the label’s flagship artist was taken from them, and then Ma$e, who was being groomed to be Bad Boy’s next star, retired from rap following his 2001 album, Double Up, choosing instead to become a pastor. Still, Bad Boy pressed on. 

When Diddy declared, “We ain’t goin nowhere, we can’t be stopped now, cause it’s Bad Boy for life,” on the chorus of 2001 single, “Bad Boy for Life,” he sounded indisputable. Over an infectious, chunky guitar, Diddy brought brash, larger-than-life energy to sell the belief that the label he founded in 1993 still had a future as bright as it was after the 1994 release of The Notorious B.I.G.’s grand debut album, Ready to Die

Diddy has the uncanny gift of persuasion. The Mount Vernon, New York-raised mogul has the self-assurance of a car salesman capable of selling an army tank to a soccer mom as if it was a sedan. Throughout his career in music, the man born Sean Combs gambled on what he could manifest, not simply what was offered on the table. 

“Bad Boy for Life” was the sound of Combs showing his chips and acknowledging that he was still betting on what he built from nothing. Manufactured to be an anthem contagious enough for radio play, the mission statement single featured Bad Boy signees Black Rob and Mark Curry, artists pegged as the leaders of the label's next chapter.

Don't worry if I write rhymes, I write checks,” Puffy rapped, almost daring the world to challenge his authoritative proclamation. Combs was here to stay on his terms. No man is too big to fail but in the summer of 2001, Bad Boy felt eternal, driven by a man who couldn’t stop, who wouldn’t stop. 

Bad Boy isn’t the commercial dynasty that spent decades dominating the charts, but the powerhouse label is still active, somehow still alive and kicking through sheer persistence and reinvention. From making bands to supporting genius talent such as Janelle Monáe, Diddy has managed to sustain a presence worth believing in. 

The resolve and confidence of a competitive bullfighter are what 2001 P. Diddy shares with 2004 Kanye West—the Genesis of a Chicago newcomer who had just released his esteemed debut. Part of Kanye's initial allure as a lyricist was his honesty. No other rapper at the time was so frank about their life. Listeners believed in the self-conscious, soul-sampling college dropout dreamer who had past due bills and a fondness for pink Polos.

It’s well-known that Kanye utilized writers to assist him with his raps, but there are countless lines that came across as if they had to be written by his pen even if they weren’t. It’s not so much the lyricism, but the scale of his dreams. To believe in Kanye was to believe in something personal rather than something abstract.

Nothing sad as that day my girl's father passed away, so I promised to Mr. Rainey I'm gonna marry your daughter," Kanye raps on “Never Let Me Down,” the JAY-Z-featured College Dropout deep cut. When I think of "old Kanye," that particular line and the lyrics that follow stand as an emblem of authenticity. It’s easy to believe in someone who could share an intimate anecdote of this caliber so earnestly on a forum public as a major label album. 

Kanye West's promise to marry Sumeke Rainey, his then-girlfriend, was as real as the 2003 outline to complete the College Dropout album theme through three future projects: Late Registration, Graduation, and Good-Ass Job. Kanye was never the best rapper, but at the time, he appeared as the most human. In an interview with Zane Lowe a decade after College Dropout, West called his music "The code to self-esteem."

Every album following College Dropout grew further from the relatably candid lyricism of his debut. Good-Ass Job was never released, Sumeke Rainey became a woman of his past, and Kanye reached a tier of stardom outside the Earth’s solar system. Through all his transformations, the relatable, deeply personal conviction that was present in West’s old music has gone missing. The dreamer ceased to have dreams that touched the public he preached to. Maybe one day Kanye will realize selling raps that were genuine—not genius—is what made him one of hip-hop’s most beloved creatives. 

When revisiting older records, there are countless rap verses filled with broken promises, forgotten vows, and unrealistic declarations. But the feelings they leave is why they’re remembered as remarkable. 

Time stops for no man, but there are entire albums and portions of songs able to freeze the present. Timelessness can be personal and not just general. Like photographs, consider these instances audio time capsules; an eternal snapshot of an artist at their most believable. 

Who do you believe in?

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