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Looking into Hip-Hop’s Soul

Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?
The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing
This is more than just my road to redemption

-Kanye West

Hip-hop originated in the 1970s, among African American youth of New York’s South Bronx, where people would get together and organise rap battles. Rapping is the oral delivery of wordplay in a particular rhythm or flow. Today, it is one of the most influential genres of music. Since its inception, the mainstream has been dismissive of hip-hop, calling it an obscene and offensive form of music. However, most people fail to delve into the depth of the lyrics. Instead, they are stuck upon the strong language used in the songs. A Fox News reporter, Geraldo Rivera, once went as far as to say, “Hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”

Hip-hop is a lot more than merely putting rhymes together. It is about telling stories and conveying a message through the lyrics. As a matter of fact, hip-hop has always been a platform for African-Americans to voice their opinions about police brutality and the systemic oppression of black people in the United States. A lot of rap is about bragging and insulting people with wordplay, and “disses” are a big part of hip-hop culture. Today, however, hip-hop has many more aspects to it and is a full-fledged art form. It could be an escape from real life into fantasy land, or a peek into one’s subconscious.

The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac

Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are often regarded as some of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. They are credited with influencing most of the 90s rap scene, and quite a few new-age rappers, with their remarkable way of translating their struggles into music. In one of Pac’s most thought-provoking songs, ‘Keep Your Head Up,’ he provided a feminist perspective and put it beautifully, “But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up/ Forgive, but don’t forget, girl, keep your head up/ And when he tells you, you ain’t nothing, don’t believe him/ And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him/ ‘Cause, sister, you don’t need him.”

It was not until the 1990s that hip-hop gained mainstream appeal, with artists such as Ice Cube, Nas, Jay-Z, and Eminem bursting onto the scene. Eminem, in spite of being a phenomenal rapper and storyteller, initially drew a lot of backlash for appropriating black culture. However, he later went on to become one of the biggest rappers of all time and made the genre available to a bigger audience.

Eminem was the gateway into hip-hop for many kids from all over the world. The way he rapped about his personal life along with a gripping storyline, accounted for his engaging and impossible to pull one’s ears from, records. Furthermore, the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, and J.Cole, among others have cited him as an influence at some point in their careers. “I got my clarity just studying Eminem when I was a kid. How I got in the studio was all just curiosity. I had a love for the music, but it was curiosity. The day I heard The Marshall Mathers LP, I was just like, How does that work? What is he doing? How is he putting his words together like that?” Lamar said in an interview. Eminem’s ability to create and deliver technically impeccable verses without missing out on the emotional aspect of music is what sets him apart from the rest.

Eminem and Jay-Z at a live show

Kanye West is another rapper who brought about a revolution in hip-hop. Known for his brilliance as a producer, West also brought in a whole new dimension to the genre with his album ‘Graduation’ which he put out in 2007. The record’s brilliance was in how it dealt with the hardships of life while looking at the bright side of things at the same time. In 2010, Kanye released his most revered album, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, which is often referred to as one of the greatest rap albums of all time. The project was Kanye baring his soul to the world, as he looked into human imperfections and reflected upon his own life.

Hip-hop’s evolution over the years has been commendable, and it is without a doubt one of the most diverse genres of music. Kendrick Lamar, who is one of the biggest rappers of this generation, became the recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize this year, for his politically charged studio album, ‘DAMN.’ In addition, he is also the first non-jazz musician to have received the honour. Lamar’s 2015 project, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, was also widely acclaimed both critically and commercially. In fact, it is often regarded as one of the best albums of all time, as it explored humanity, soul, and God while talking about racial discrimination against African-Americans, and social injustice in America.  Furthermore, with a Metacritic score of 96, it sits at the fifth position in the list of greatest albums of all time. Childish Gambino’s hit single, ‘This is America’, is also another fantastic example of how hip-hop is an incredibly effective medium for social commentary. The music video for the song has been viewed over 441 million times on YouTube since 5th May 2018.

DAMN. cover art

Several rappers have rapped about mental health and created abstract, soulful albums. For instance, Tyler, The Creator’s 2017 project, ‘Flower Boy’, was an incredibly beautiful work of art, as the rapper dived into his soul and embarked on a journey of discovering himself. Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s joint venture that came out this summer was another mesmerising piece of art. The duo released a seven-track masterpiece titled ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS.’ The pair spoke about mental health and went on a creative spree as they went into the human psyche. The album was filled with hope and soul as the two artists brilliantly complemented each other throughout the joint venture.

Hip-hop is about translating real-life scenarios into music. It is like any other expression of creativity, and should not be curbed based on mere assumptions. Millions have immersed their souls and found solace in this art form, and that is the reason it has become one of the biggest genres of music.