More Than a Musical Genre

Hip-hop’s popularity and propensity for controversy obscure its literary excellence and social significance.

By Soham Mall

Here’s a lukewarm take that should come as a surprise to no one: Hip-hop music is in the driver’s seat. In 2018, hip-hop/R&B accounted for 30% of all music streaming in the U.S., more than any other genre. As with any popular art that finds itself scrutinized by the public, hip-hop has certainly invited its share of adulation and reprimand. To many, hip-hop—I’m going to shamelessly use hip-hop as an umbrella term for the genre—is reduced to its blemishes, a quagmire of profanity that glorifies misogyny, drug use, and violence. Others claim the extremely trite: “it all sounds the same.” Without glorifying it as an uncontroversial and flawless genre—though I believe it is unequaled—I want to destigmatize hip-hop and its reputation as low art. With its literary richness, social significance, portrayal of reality, and sonic potency, hip-hop deserves a lot more than your cursory glance. Here’s hip-hop’s State of the Union, if you will.

An overlooked facet of hip-hop is the impressive literary potential it holds. The intricacy of rhyme, the potency of the simile or metaphor, and the magnetism of cadence are just a few reasons why hip-hop is such a dynamic genre. Hip-hop gives artists an incredible amount of creative freedom, engendering self-expression like no other form of music. I don’t think that the ivory tower literati who dismiss rap as shallow stop to consider the variance of diction used by rappers or the depth of emotion that a hip-hop track can express. If it is so lacking in substance, how would anyone be able to produce a long-form literary analysis podcast on hip-hop from Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean? How did Kendrick Lamar win the Pulitzer? The vapidity of certain artists’ work does not discredit the genre as a whole. It’s certainly poetry—if Rupi Kaur qualifies as a poet, MF DOOM certainly does. Hip-hop’s propensity for expletives is perhaps the only thing preventing it from being studied in high school classrooms the same way traditional literature is. Analyzing Joey Bada$$ might be just as productive as studying Salinger. As for higher academia, problematic subject matter and language have never barred examination.

Born from soul, jazz, funk, and the blues, hip-hop has emerged from art which originated in times of oppression and continues to be a torchbearer of the Black experience. Rappers such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar chronicle racism, systemic oppression, gang violence, and poverty. Thus, hip-hop has the potential to be used in an activist capacity. Most famously, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was used as an anthem of solidarity by the Black Lives Matter movement. Rappers like Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., and Pusha T have rapped about working as drug dealers—not to glorify drug use, but to highlight the compulsion they faced as young Black men who lacked opportunities to progress economically in a racist country. Similarly, not all hip-hop lyrics addressing gangs and violence are gratuitous—they are often reflections of grim truths.

Hip-hop is, at its core, an expression of reality. It lacks the authorial distance that writers of fiction often employ; as such, it is inherently personal—the modern-day soliloquy. The braggadocio that hip-hop artists are sometimes mocked for is often testimony to their stories of success. Having “made it out,” often from rags to riches, the jewelry is not just for decoration. I conducted a research project in 2018 where I extracted every pop culture reference in 37 best-selling hip-hop albums from 2017–18. Rappers shouted out luxury brands like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Ferrari, Rolex, Gucci, and Hermes in a manner that can only be described as blasé. Rolls Royce was name-dropped 76 times across the albums. Luxury watch brand Patek Philippe was mentioned 53 times (mostly by Migos in their 2018 album Culture II). These symbols of wealth and success may be materialistic, but they legitimize hip-hop, and indirectly, music, as a path to success. If a Goldman Sachs employee can flaunt a six-figure salary, rappers can boast of their newfound wealth too.

Recently, rappers have found unprecedented success and fame with hip-hop’s surging popularity. Historically, hip-hop’s nucleus has journeyed from storytelling to lyricism to melody, and remnants of the past still remain in today’s music. But hip-hop has never been so catchy. Rappers now work with multiple producers to create infectious beats on which they overlay tuneful hooks. Drake has been doing this for years. Artists like Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Travis Scott, and Post Malone have cracked the code too, earning themselves multiple chart-topping hits. Hip-hop sounds good—just ask the odd frat bro who undeniably ran out of ideas and insisted on playing “Mo Bamba” and “SICKO MODE” at least five times during a party. “It’s, like, the song of the year, bro.”

However, this renewed attention also means that hip-hop’s more controversial elements have also emerged into the spotlight. Though hip-hop lyrics have arguably become less contentious since the days of gangsta rap, there is still an abundance of misogyny, homophobia, and glorification of drug use and violence. References to women as “hoes,” homophobic f- and d-words, and repeated references to recreational drugs can normalize harmful beliefs. The perpetuation of such themes complicates hip-hop’s reputation and blunts its potential to be conceived of as a high art form. Censorship is not a realistic option, but we need to hold hip-hop artists to a higher standard. The backlash against disrespectful lyrics has led to apologies, some of which have been unconvincing. The onus is on us all collectively; as producers and consumers of hip-hop, we cannot keep the whole and ignore the parts.

Hip-hop deserves your scrutiny, but also your respect. Its brilliance supersedes its reputation. It’s a lot more than superficial, insolent rhymes set to a backing track. I firmly believe that we can celebrate its excellence while condemning its transgressions. If I’ve done my job and convinced you, I suggest starting with Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy.

Soham Mall is a second-year in the College.