Street rap, or "gangsta rap" as it was once called, is best understood as dispatches from the soldiers in America's drug war. Whether those dispatches are hard facts, artfully Goines-ian narratives, or totally hyperbolic bullshit, they render the experiences of those deeply affected by this country's ongoing war on drugs. To read street rap as reckless, mindless music corrupting the minds of black youth and feeding white suburbia and city-dwelling white hipsters with fantastical stereotypes—though it is doing those things as well, it just doesn't only do those things—is unwise.
Consider last April's burst of Baltimore rap songs wrestling with the death of Freddie Gray and its subsequent effects on the city. Most famously, there is Young Moose and Martina Lynch's 'No SunShine,' Lor Chris' '#JusticeForFreddie,' and Dboi Da Dome's 'Fuck 12.' All three were recorded within days of the Baltimore Uprising and introduced listeners to another way to more intimately experience street rap: as music that processes, explores, and tries to expunge trauma. The mass trauma experience consists of segregation/displacement, physical/psychological violence, economic destruction, and cultural dispossession. Those songs transfer the trauma into three-minute bursts of hopeful frustration, spleen-venting rage, and catchy cathartic turn-up music all at once.
This is not exactly new, mind you—hip-hop has always processed trauma. Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University (see Brown's proposal on reparations here), is quick to point out that this is a tradition in black music that goes back to the blues at least: "Several hip-hop scholars pose that the genre is either the blues of today, its progeny, and/or a reflection of living in postindustrial, hyper-segregated American cities . . . In that sense, hip-hop [consists of] transmissions from disinvested, redlined Black communities." Brown also says that songs such as Young Moose's 'No SunShine' are "meditations on being Black in America, being Black in Baltimore," and adds, "the April 27 Uprising has clearly had a radicalizing effect on many of us," including, it would seem, the city's street rappers.
While the aforementioned Baltimore songs fit into the common reading of rap as reportage—as Public Enemy's Chuck D once said, "Rap is our invisible TV network. It's the CNN that black people never had"—along with street-level commentary, two recent Baltimore rap songs, President Davo and Young Moose's 'Rainy Days' and Lil Saint and Lor Chris' 'I Hate Y'All Niggas,' wrestle with Gray's death months later, along with the day-to-day stress of living in Baltimore, and continue the conversation that began last April.
On 'Rainy Days,' President Davo warbles out a pained hook about police brutality: "Fuck wrong with these coppers?/ They killing my kind, they killing my kind/ Three months suspended but they still getting paid/ I'm from Bmore so my hands go up for Freddie Gray/ It's too many rainy days." Davo's delivery here parallels his impressive track from last year, 'With Me,' a more personal song that lashes out but also offers understanding. To his haters, enemies, exes, and all the rest he ultimately concludes on 'With Me,' "On another note, I've been doing good, and I still wish the best for you and yours/ I been working hard setting up a tour/ If they ain't stunting with me, I'm stunting on them." The song's both giddy and dejected and the same is true of 'Rainy Days,' though here it's a lament that gains a little strength when it speaks truth to power. On the guest verse, the increasingly embattled Young Moose pogos into 'Rainy Days' and folds police violence on top of personal problems with success and the law (including increased focus on him due to, among other things, last year's controversial 'True Bill') and the institutional chaos of Baltimore City. Locally, Moose is a hero because he's down in it and implicated. His songs are nothing more than cascades of emotion—but that's enough.
On 'I Hate Y'all Niggas,' Lil Saint delivers a pithy verse that callously threatens violence, gently memorializes friends, and conflates their deaths with Gray's death. "I ain't really got a lot to say, rest in peace Freddie Gray," Saint mumbles at one point. And really, what is there to say at this point? You have to just keep shouting the message over and over—which the thrilling monotony of 'I Hate Y'all Niggas' does—and hope more people hear it. It's also telling that Saint, who usually employs a double-time delivery, opts for a calmer approach here; he's inhabiting his community's dour mood. Then, functioning much like Moose on 'Rainy Days,' Lor Chris breathlessly spits aspirational shit talk—a brief respite from Saint's melancholy.
In the 2012 book "Therapeutic Uses of Rap and Hip-Hop," edited by Susan Hadley and George Yancy, Hadley's introductory thoughts say rap music "us[es] darkness to bring light"—a useful way to understand the significance of street rap like 'I Hate Y'all Niggas' without denying its more pernicious, prurient qualities. Hadley goes on: "Rap functions as a site of counter-nihilism and counter-destructiveness. Rap does give voice to feelings of meaninglessness and dread, but the power of giving voice to such feelings creates an important psychological distance from such feelings." And echoing Lawrence Brown's statement that rap is a continuation of the blues, Hadley explains that rap's objective, "like the blues genre . . . is not to remain in the grips of depression, anger, and angst, to be static and imprisoned by debilitating psychological and socio-psychological problems." That is certainly true in the maudlin moans of 'Rainy Days' and the tragically optimistic street-pop hook of 'I Hate Y'all Niggas.'
Meanwhile, the mainstream music industry continues to marginalize street rap. Turn on the radio and the rappers you hear and the content they deliver lacks even consequences or grit—when it's about the drug war, it is platitudinous or vague (Rick Ross is the number one offender; Fetty Wap's Springstreen-esque 'Trap Queen' and Future and Kevin Gates' druggy dirges are the exceptions to this rule). And it is short-sighted to imagine that, say, the introspective, low-key misogyny of Drake ('Hotline Bling') or J. Cole ('No Role Modelz') dominating the radio is any kind of victory over gangsta-rap nihilism, which at least acknowledged pain, violence, and the drug war (Kendrick Lamar is a "political" and "street" fusionist of the highest caliber and we are very lucky to have him). Still, for the most part, rap's pain, however problematic or just plain cruel, has been replaced on the radio by songs that mostly bolster sexism, capitalism, and hustling in the abstract.
Baltimore songs such as 'Rainy Days' and 'I Hate Y'all Niggas' become increasingly significant as hip-hop grows more commercial, more co-opted (not just capitalized upon), censored, and yet blamed for society's ills rather than seen as a reflection of those ills. It is not a coincidence that hip-hop birthed itself out of the devastation of '70s New York; that in recent years, gangsta-rap renaissances have popped up in cities such as Chicago, specifically its violence-wracked South Side; or that the Baltimore artists mentioned here (as well as Da Kidd Moo, FMG Dez, GMG Tadoe, Lor Scoota, YGG Tay, to name a few) are gaining attention as the city goes through a moment of raised social consciousness.
Moreover, street rap is a necessary affront to respectability politics. These Baltimore rap songs refuse to extricate their hopeless (or hateful) messages from their more hopeful ones. As Lester Spence observes in his book "Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics" (click here for a review and here for an editorial on reparations by Spence), the Black Lives Matter movement has made "anti-respectability the center of its politics," opposing the stance common since the start of the last century among many "black elites" that "the best way for blacks to attain the rights of full citizenship is to become 'respectable.'" You see this most clearly in the music video for 'I Hate Y'all Niggas' directed by TraeRashaadKing. It intercuts footage of young men pouring lean into cups, mimicking gunfire, and scowling with images of the same people gripping protest signs and joyfully dancing together in front of a store. It is as if Public Enemy's 'Fight The Power' video and every tedious trap video full of mean-mugging d-boys merged into one multitude-filled mini-movie.
These songs are imperfect by design, but they are undoubtedly expressing and processing trauma and that makes them exceptional. They could do more though, argues Lawrence Brown. "There's no doubt hip-hop is transmitting, but when you take into account the model of historical trauma exactly what is hip-hop transmitting? Trauma? Often," Brown says. "But does how often does it promote healing from that trauma, overcoming the debilitating effects of trauma, or even confronting that trauma? Does it present a plan to undo the damage that has been done? Those are questions I believe we must ask of Black art, including hip-hop."