We want to believe rap artists when we press play. But what makes a rapper sound believable on the mic? Their ability to communicate an unfiltered sincerity. The raps that hit and last are the ones that are the most sincere.
In that breath, we asked Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh to define sincerity in hip-hop and to break down what sincerity sounds like on wax.
Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
yoh [10:15 AM]
Happy Thursday to you my dear first lady. We're getting started pretty early today. What is on Donna's mind before noon?
donnacwrites [10:17 AM]
Good morning Yohsipher, yes early for you, but Donna has been awake since six.
Today I want to discuss sincerity in music. We often talk about what makes a rap sound real, and we always point to it being authentic, but then we get into the thorny conversation of what truths hold more value. I don't think any one lived experience is innately more convincing, per se, in hip-hop. It's the sincerity of the delivery that makes it so "real."
So, what does sincerity in hip-hop sound like to you?
yoh [10:25 AM]
Wonderful question. Sincerity in rap sounds like Tupac on his third studio album, Me Against the World. That is a project filled with rapping from his gut. It brims with all of the love, hate, and passion in his body. It's the sincerity of his delivery that made Tupac such a striking artist. He made every word he rapped sound as real as it did in his spirit.
What about you? What does sincerity in hip-hop sound like?
donnacwrites [10:29 AM]
Sincerity sounds like, and excuse me for being repetitive they're just on my mind, Nip and Mac. Mac Miller's "Senior Skip Day" is nothing like Nip's Victory Lap, but they both have a lot of sincerity to them. Neither artists masquerades as something they're not.
Early Mac Miller did not act hard to fit into hip-hop, he took us into a day in his life making breakfast and getting stoned, and that was fine and it was endearing. Nipsey took us onto Crenshaw and Slauson with every opportunity, and the words struck so many chords because Nip was a poet who could make his lived experiences rise off the page. In that way, he reminds of Frank O'Hara, who takes us through a day so simple, but the final result is something greater than the sum of the events.
yoh [10:42 AM]
I love how you mentioned Nipsey, Mac, and Frank O 'Hara. I've spent a lot of time with Nipsey's music since his passing. When he released his ninth mixtape Mailbox Money in 2014, I was working my last day at Olive Garden and I completely missed it.
Hearing the project in retrospect, I needed the mixtape then. On every song, he has this truly sincere, encouraging perspective about life and how you are able to obtain all the things you dream of. That's what I love about Nipsey, he never felt like he was selling a dream, but a distant reality. It's a different experience than rappers who have the sincerity of car salesmen.
What are the calling cards of an artist who is being truly sincere with their raps?
donnacwrites [10:46 AM]
I hate saying it this way, but it is just a "vibe." We are feeling animals, as people, and we can sense when someone is putting up a front. There's a crack in the voice, there's a misplaced inflection. There's always something that tips us off to not believing an artist. Some of the most insincere raps are the banalest. Ask yourself, have I heard this story before?
The specificity of a bar, no matter the topic, is what makes it sincere. Mac's music video campaign for K.I.D.S. is so sincere because he's just running through his day. It is hyper-specific to him, but in that, we immediately believe him as he goes through aisles in the grocery store. Nip's visuals propagate much of the same.
Specificity and sincerity go hand-in-hand, don't you agree?
yoh [10:59 AM]
Yes, absolutely! Telling the most genuine version of your story must have a unique specificity to be felt. Anyone can say they ran off on the plug, or have trapped out of abandoned buildings, but those are images that have become so general they lack color. There's nothing grayer than a banal, general boast. That's why I love JAY-Z. On the outro ("Regret") of Jay's debut Reasonable Doubt, there is a sequence of vignettes which sell the idea that to live is to experience a series of regretful events. It's so real, raw, and specific I must take his words as gospel.
Another great example is "Imaginary Players," one of the best records on In My Lifetime Vol. 1. There's just something about how disgusted he is by liars and phonies that shows the power in sincere arrogance. If you the man, you have to talk like THE MAN. You can't pretend or fake that swagger.
donnacwrites [11:00 AM]
Do you think brag raps have a higher barrier to entry for sincerity than perhaps more life music a la Rapsody?
yoh [11:10 AM]
I do. This is a genre of music where honesty is synonymous with the art form. I can't recall the line verbatim, but Drake has a lyric where he says, "I gotta own the things I rap about for my pride." [Editor's Note: The lyric is from "Can't Take a Joke."]
I thought that was such a good brag in the context of being able to make any boast, but that's why exposure is so big—you don't want to be caught lying. It's harder to prove someone is lying about their life than rocking a fake Rolex. Yet, there are a lot of Rolex raps. There's really an art to bragging and doing so sincerely, so when it happens we feel it.
donnacwrites [11:13 AM]
That's what makes Rapsody's "Power" such a—please excuse me—powerful song. Rap is "bragging" across the song, but really, she's taking us on her journey of coming into power, and that sounds like the ideal way to get boastful but maintain your soul.
Much of Laila's Wisdom features Rapsody big-upping herself, but the way she does it, bringing us into her world and walking us through her struggles, makes each brag feel earned and enjoyable. We celebrate with her. That's wisdom, too. So to your point about fake Rolexes, I don't think it matters if the watch is or isn't real, but rather, did you earn it.
yoh [11:15 AM]
Now that is a beautiful way to put it.