Plenty of characteristics can endear us to artists, but few things work as many wonders as a good dose of self-awareness. Artists who purport that level of sincerity in their music are artists who will endure.
So, what does self-awareness sound like in hip-hop? We posed the question to DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh.
Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
donnacwrites [11:40 AM]
Good morning, Yohsipher.
yoh [11:41 AM]
Good morning, Grandma. How are you this fine Thursday?
donnacwrites [11:41 AM]
Gram is a little tired, she was up until the rowdy hours of 10 PM last night, but otherwise, she can't complain. How are you?
yoh [11:45 AM]
You party animal. I'm a little tired, too. I've been up since 4, working on a piece for next week. Trying to shake off the noon fatigue, but I see a nap in my future after writing the Denzel Curry ZUU 1 Listen.
We didn't have a conversation last week, so I'm eager to know what's on your mind today?
donnacwrites [11:48 AM]
Today I wanted to talk about self-awareness in hip-hop. One of the most endearing traits in music is the ability to see yourself and move within yourself. How Blueface knew he was a meme. How Lil Nas X uses social media because he knows he is a meme. This makes me enjoy the artist more. But that's all the social media and press game. What does self-awareness sound like in song?
What comes to mind for me is Injury Reserve's self-titled debut album and "Rap Song Tutorial." Per the title, it is a campy play on how rap is made and mass-produced. The group makes fun of themselves and the genre, but they also point out we are still listening and that while it may sound easy, as the album expounds, hip-hop is hard work. I find myself so drawn to that song because it goes beyond simple honesty to an elevated place of commentary.
Do you have a track like that in recent memory?
yoh [12:02 PM]
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I love Injury Reserve's self-titled debut. Their self-awareness goes beyond "Rap Song Tutorial," but that's an excellent example. If you haven't, readers, play that record.
For me, the most recent example of self-awareness in rap is Megan Thee Stallion's "Simon Says." The entire Fever album, really, but "Simon Says" reminds me how Juicy J has survived this long in the industry. It's finding the formula, remastering the ingredients, and updating the packaging. "Simon Says" fits in the now, a song of the present, while communicating with all the great twerk and street bangers that have risen from the south. A song like this only works when the artist and producer know who they are and who their consumer base is.
Self-awareness and intention can build careers.
donnacwrites [12:05 PM]
Interesting, so we've identified two different varieties of self-awareness. I was talking more about the commentary of a song, and you were talking more so about the concocting of a track and being aware of your demographic, what works, and what doesn't. With that in mind, do you believe there to be other genres of self-awareness, and if so, how do they come together to form a prosperous career?
I agree with you that if you do not move with intention, your career will flounder. If you do not bask in your truth and use music to reflect who you are, fans will go elsewhere because there is nothing unique about you. Forgive me for being harsh, but if you are not at least a touch self-aware in your music or your approach, if you drown out your voice, then you're adding noise to an already noisy society.
yoh [12:16 PM]
I've been thinking a lot lately how important it is for artists to be self-aware of risk and reward. For example, we perceive a record deal as a potentially lucrative opportunity in exchange for label support. But, the issue with that thinking is all record labels aren't built the same. No two deals are alike. It's possible to sign a deal with the right contract and the wrong label. Now what you thought was a reward for your hard work can risk (stunt) your progression.
Deeper than record deals is the team you build, the communities you create, and where time and money is being spent. This era requires more than good tunes; you have to become the ideal package to offer the ideal presentation. Without full awareness of why and how decisions are made, this likely isn't possible.
You weren't being too harsh, it's true, we need to know who you are and what makes you unique. Your music being good isn't a good enough reason anymore. Going back to Injury Reserve, do you find yourself gravitating toward self-aware rap songs? Is that something you look for in music?
donnacwrites [12:21 PM]
Absolutely. I look for artists who know who they are and can put it in their music. To me, that sounds like high-minded sincerity. The triumph of Steve Lacy's "Like Me" is that he begins by admitting he doesn't want to make a big deal of his coming out. It was that human moment that hooked me.
The song is important as I covered in my review, but it was something in the way Steve delivered the news that made the record really pop. Self-awareness rolls out the red carpet for your humanity to shine through. It sounds like you being yourself in a cheeky way, an unabashed way. There is no shame or trepidation involved, which makes it fun and insightful.
What does self-awareness sound like to you?
yoh [12:33 PM]
I still need to check out young Lacy's new project. Peers and friends have shared rave reviews.
Hmm, I have to go with Tyler, The Creator's "RUNNING OUT OF TIME." It's a love song that isn't naïve. He looks at this union as sand in an hourglass and knows how every second they grow further apart. "I been running out of spells to make you love me," he sings in the first verse. This shows that even Tyler would use mystic arts if it means helping a love last.
One of my favorite lines, after a string of water imagery, goes, "I found peace in drowning." There's no struggle for air, no fight to best the deep-end; time is running out and he's accepted the burial ground of their love. Even though he begs for him to remove his mask in the last verse, he knows the answer. He's still running out of time.
Love is a clock that will stop ticking.