When picking apart rap songs, I have often found it easy to consider the social commentary or culture critique located in lyrics as poetic/musical devices and little more. That is to say, rather than analyze such commentaries as attempts to engage listeners in discussions about issues or conditions that shape their lives for better or worse, I have preferred to frame them as musings designed to assist the artist in the process of making sense of the world while simultaneously sounding cool. I have assumed, wrongly, that these two processes are mutually exclusive, or not at least not likely to occur simultaneously. Part of the reason I often defer to this stance is because I find other critical approaches distasteful or fallacious.
I have never been too keen on the idea that all art worth consuming has to function as propaganda, or be judged solely on how it operates as such. I have long been suspicious of the “socially conscious” label that gets slapped on certain acts. As far as I can tell “social consciousness” has more to do with a preference for jazz samples, a collegiate fanbase, an affinity for bohemian chic, a cursory knowledge of conspiracy theories than the espousal of progressive ideologies. And even if rappers are genuinely interested in engendering social or political change for the benefit of the collective, who cares, right? Rappers are supposed to flow well over dope beats, and any extra Easter eggs they leave for discerning listeners are just additional reasons to enjoy the music for its own sake, I reasoned.
The problem with this line of thinking should be obvious to anyone who has listened to more than three rap songs in their lifetime: rappers talks so much on record that almost all of them eventually offer social, cultural, and political commentary. Put almost any rapper under the critical microscope, scrutinize every available recording in his/her/their discography, close-read every single lyric and ad-lib and in 99.9% of cases or more, you will find at least one coherent statement of protest against U.S. governmental policy and/or dominant social, political, cultural, and educational institutions. Sometimes these sentiments are partly masked behindÂ braggadocioÂ or framed in a seemingly insular discussion of rap music and its reception or tucked away in personal reflections on poverty and struggle, but they are there, loud and clear.
It is a mistake to presume that such expressions have no import in the world outside of song and dance. For many years I have justified my fallacious stance as a way to steer clear of the slippery slope of conservatism that traps so many critics and longtime fans whose impatience with violent, sexist, or homonegative1Â attitudes interferes with their ability to objectively assess music. I interpreted attempts to take artists to task for their commentaries as attacks on youth and youth culture, an unfair form of pillorying motivated by an underestimation of the critical faculties and decision making skills of poor urban black and Latino youth. To this day, I am often reluctant to even consider the possibility that rap lyrics can shape behaviors or concede that rap lyrics are not exempt from the scrutiny of the communities that consume them.
Recently I read a couple of items that encouraged me to reexamine my stance. The first is a 2006 NYT op-ed contribution from sociologist Orlando Patterson titled “A Poverty of The Mind”2 that criticizes social scientists for their misguided reluctance to study the cultural causes of the black-white achievement gap. Patterson places particular emphasis on the deleterious effects of “the cool pose,” an anti-intellectual, anti-achievement stance assumed by many young black males on the way to dropping out of high school. He argues that the prevalence of this pose and related cultural attributes and their impact on the group’s academic achievement is obscured by scholarly inquiries that reduce the formative experiences of poor young black males to a series of statistical analyses of structural factors (inadequate education, poor housing, etc.). In order to objectively explore the effects of cultural patterns on achievement, sociologists must abandon the false notion that such inquiries amount to blaming the victim, denying black males a sense of agency or proposing that cultural patterns are static.
The second piece is an essay posted recently on the website The American Prospect titled “Culture Before Politics” that is co-authored by Jeff Chang and Brian and Komar.3 Chang and Komar argue that liberals are literally decades behind conservatives in the process of galvanizing support for their objectives through mass media movements that appeal to the hearts and minds of voters whose political views and social values are shaped first and foremost in the arena of culture. They state that “cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change,” meaning that “political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.” The modern conservative movement’s cultural savvy connects with constituencies that liberals either overlook or underemphasize, namely “a divided public that responds to values, images, and stories” and can be swiftly mobilized Â to support political aims with help from popular media outlets and personalities (think Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.).
Patterson suggests that detrimental cultural patterns can be changed or even rerouted to assist a downtrodden collective in pursuing educational attainment, and by extension, social and political progress. Chang and Komar call for progressive thinkers to work in cooperation with artists and other “creatives” to promote and thus normalize their values in the eyes of a voting public that is open to new ideas and is primed to embrace the concept of change as a broadening of possibilities, as opposed to a conservative view of change as the restoration of an older order. The idea that rap music can be and often is a forum in which cultural values and patterns are described and discussed in relation to the social structures, economic conditions, musical innovations, and iconic figures that shaped them is only easily refuted if you resist analyzing the music beyond a superficial dope/wack assessment. It behooves those of us who enjoy decoding the music in an exhaustive and appreciative manner to consider the ways in which certain works criticize cultural patterns in an attempt to engender social or political change.
I’ll start with “Black Family Day” by Grand Puba, which appeared on the Pump Ya Fist: Music Inspired By The Black Panthers compilation in 1995. Grand Puba is an intriguing personality; his rhymes swing back and forth between nearly crass but highly charismatic odes to debauchery and righteously indignant indictments of America’s racist past and present. This duality is hardly uncommon in rap but Puba’s infamy as a purveyor of style —both musical and sartorial— in the early and mid-90s means that it is crucial for critics to examine his forays into serious social commentary. Puba begins his first verse by inhabiting the perspective of an impoverished adolescent, exclaiming “I need this money, god damn I need this money/ I wanna buy the cars and the jewels and bags the honey” and immediately jumps out of this mentality to explains how its logic contributes to social disorder:4Â “So the shorty hits the corner of his block/ To get his ghetto props and hit up all the heads with the black tops/ Smokers line up to the buy the sickness/ the green papers stacks on the thickness with a quickness.”
Puba recites these lines methodically but playfully, clearly aware that they will be heard by younger men who can directly relate to the decision making process he describes. His assumption of two stances —that of learned and respected elder and that of street kid— and his ability to switch effortlessly between them suggests that an individual can adapt to the demands of his environment without falling prey to its traps. Although he switches perspectives, he only modulates his vocal style to ride the beat. His overall composure, his cool if you will, lingers throughout the verse, suggesting that certain traits that serve the street kid well in the illicit corner trade can be modified so as to be useful once he opts out of it. The visionary artistic impulse that Chang and Komar praise as an effective political tool and the notion that cultural patterns can frame behaviors that are not self-destructive are present in Puba’s rhymes, and this is no accident.
As the song progresses, Puba describes in detail the individual and collective damage that results from pathological behaviors that become normalized amidst the disintegration of community and family structures. He insists in his own chill way that when individuals volunteer to take control over their lives the possibility for visionary localized action is made manifest. In lieu of a sweeping reform movement enacted by well-intended political elites, the so-called underclass can muster both manpower and resources to not only improve living conditions, but effectively reform deadly habits. This does not preclude the possibility that members of the underclass can become empowered elites, however; Â a willful departure from criminal mischief is a huge step in that direction. Rappers who are cut from the same cloth as Puba are able to communicate such ideas with greater urgency and flair than most any elected official or tweedy academic; the fact that Puba can assert a complex value system through his vocal inflection alone is hugely impressive.
Bloggers and critics who are interested in contributing to the body of knowledge on rap music and culture are advised not to blindly assume that rap lyrics hover for eternity in a deracinated, ahistorical, apolitical vacuum of pure Art; there are other songs like “Black Family Day” out there, and they deserve to be heard and written about. — Thun
- I am not a fan of the term “homophobia” or “homophobic” as it implies that a disagreement with homosexual behavior is always attributable to a diagnosable psycho-pathology; I do not believe that enough scientifically valid evidence exists to support such a claim. [↩]
- “A Poverty Of Â The Mind.” Chauncey DeVega of We Are Respectable Negroes brought the piece to my attention in this post. [↩]
- “Culture Before Politics.” [↩]
- In his recently published book Decoded, which I am just now reading because I waited for the Kindle version, Jay-Z explains in painstaking detail how his rhymes throughout his career have been largely focused on explicating the psychological motivation of hustling. if this topic interests you in the least, Decoded is a must read. [↩]