Bigger Than Kendrick: Baltimore uprising rap confounds the mainstream media's take on political hip-hop

City Paper

In a video released in late January, "Hip-Hop is Political Again. Here's Why," explanatory news site Vox sought to explain what it characterized as the reemergence of politically charged rap in 2015. In three minutes and a superficial analysis of hip-hop's on and off again relationship with political commentary we learn this: Tupac, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G. channeled the frustrations of 1990s inner city youth, Lauryn Hill championed feminism, and then rap music took a detour to the club, pushing political and conscious rap underground. It wasn't until 2015, according to Vox, that hip-hop returned to its bully pulpit, yanked into the political sphere by a series of controversial killings by police and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. By the video's end, Kendrick Lamar is praised as the political conscience of the current crop of rappers.

Vox built its journalistic bona fides on politics and policy analysis, making it the last place a person seriously interested in rap criticism would turn. However, that is precisely why its assertion that mainstream hip-hop pivoted back to politics in 2015 is so toxic: Many people take their cues from Vox, which constructs a digestible narrative for outsiders, one with a positive and even “social justice” spin and as such, allows its readers to feel “down” while still feeling superior to the majority of hip-hop which Vox deems unworthy of being labeled political. The website's argument relies on an imaginary binary: gangster/party rap juxtaposed against conscious/political rap. The critique operates under the assumption that rappers exist in silos: conscious and political or materialistic and hedonistic. These imagined subgenres are a convenient categorization, an easy way to differentiate the messages of Mos Def and Gucci Mane, two rappers that are not always in opposition.

Since Baltimore erupted in April 2015, the city's rappers—whether they are so-called "street" (Young Moose's ‘No SunShine'), "club" (Abdu Ali's ‘I'm Alive'), "conscious" (Al Rogers Jr.'s ‘Honey'), or "underground" (JPEGMAFIA's “Black Ben Carson”)—have consistently responded to the uprising in their music (see this week's cover story "F The City Up" for more on Ali, JPEGMAFIA and others). Vox's binary-catering approach to hip-hop wouldn't know what to do with this post-uprising renaissance. Mostly because Vox undermines the subtle political statements that almost every rap record makes. What is not political about people partying to escape, at least for a moment, their deprivation? What is not political about those crushed under the weight of capitalist democracy fetishizing luxury cars, jewelry, and expensive sneakers? Rap mirrors the explicit politics of America, but more often it echoes the hedonism bubbling under the surface of American life.

Kendrick Lamar as the face of political hip-hop right now is an all too convenient choice for the mainstream media. His 2015 “To Pimp a Butterfly” is an accessible and explicit political monologue. It's Kendrick in the bully pulpit decrying political partisanship on ‘Hood Politics’: “Ain't nothin' new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans/ Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin'?” It is Kendrick using palatable metaphors like the tale of a homeless beggar who is actually God on ‘How Much a Dollar Cost,’ which won praise from President Barack Obama.

This is rap tailor made for mainstream, social justice-oriented consumption. It's not the complicated life of a child growing up in the crack era and immersed in the dope trade Kendrick explored in his verse on Pusha T's ‘Nosetalgia’: “Quantum physics could never show you the world I was in/ When I was 10, back when nine ounces had got you 10.” Nor is the extended metaphor—rap as commodity, emcee as dope dealer—he explores later in the same verse: “I said ‘Daddy, one day I'mma get you right with 36 zips/ 1000 grams of cocaine, then your name will be rich/ Now you can rock it up or sell it soft as leather interior/ Drop some ice cubes in it, Deebo on perimeter’/ He said ‘Son, how come you think you be my connect?’/ I said ‘Pops, your ass is washed up, with all due respect’/ He said ‘Well nigga, then show me how it all makes sense’/ Go figure, motherfucker, every verse is a brick, your son dope, nigga.”

White America and by extension the mainstream media seldom has a sufficient vocabulary, or an adequate compass to navigate more nuanced black political thought. Black art is too often pigeonholed: Jay Z is a materialist; Kanye West, an egomaniac; 50 Cent, a gangster; Snoop Dogg, a pothead; Drake, an emo suburban kid; Beyonce, every white girl's cool and safe black girlfriend. The idea that their expression always serves a broader political metaphor seems lost on mainstream cultural commentators.

In his 1978 poem ‘Bicentennial Blues,’ Gil Scott Heron raps: “As American as apple pie. As American as the blues. As American as apple pie. The question is why? Why should the Blues be so at home here. Well, America provided the atmosphere.” The blues was rooted in slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. The blues as Scott Heron put it “grew up in small town deprivation / The blues grew up in big city isolation.” And in all its incarnations (R&B, jazz, rock & roll, and hip-hop) the blues is political. Capitalist democracy, white supremacy, and black oppression husked the seeds of conflict that birthed the Blues, the paterfamilias of all American music. Hip-hop has been the past two generations' iteration of the blues. It's not the music of the Delta, but of postmodern urban decay. Hip-hop is not the blues of Sharecropping, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration, but of Reaganomics, white flight, and the drug war.

In the confluence of post-industrial urban decline and the drug epidemic, the realpolitik of the disenfranchised is explicitly material. Money can quell suffering.

Baltimore rapper Test, signed to Future's Freebandz label, exudes this sentiment on ‘Go Away’: “I got all this pain inside me, but the money make it go away.” But the relationship between money and escape is paradoxical. Even Test admits that wealth can’t alleviate all his pain: “Money can't buy you everything, but it get you almost there.” Perhaps no current mainstream rapper embodies money as political power, albeit one which doesn't guarantee societal access, like Kanye West. Rap's modern polymath has of late directed his wrath at a fashion industry which he claims has denied him access. From his recently released, yet allegedly unfinished album—"The Life of Pablo"—Kanye takes aim at sneaker behemoth Nike on ‘Facts’: “Yeezy in the house and we just got appraised/ Nike, Nike treat employees just like slaves/ Gave LeBron a billi not to run away.”

And then, Kanye rehashes an old beef with the broader fashion industry: “Tell Adidas that we need a million in production/ I done told y'all, all I needed was the infrastructure.” This isn't the politics of the Beltway. There is no policy solution. Still, it's political insomuch as it's the expression of one without power toward an establishment he alleges is trying to limit access.

Rap's darkest sub-genre remains dirty south-derived trap music, and its descendant, Chicago drill: stylized tales of drug dealing, murder, and wealth laid over spare synthesizer stabs and snare pops. It is gratuitous in its sexualization, its violence and its allegiance to criminality. It's the blues with no remorse, and an outgrowth of our failed drug war. In Baltimore, a city that experienced more homicides than New York City in 2015, the rap scene is littered with odes to guns. Again, this is the realpolitik of the street. No calculus here, just simple math: power equals the ability to employ violence.

Amid the ascent of the Black Lives Matter movement, Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota weaves together a line about how the killings permeate social arrangements and social media on his song 'Ready Or Not': “How I'm supposed to live with all this death in my sight/ Keep you niggas by your side because niggas dying left and right/ I see rest in peace on IG three times a night.” The lyrics don't condemn the killings. Not in the way Kendrick does on ‘The Blacker the Berry,’ where his condemnation of street violence comes wrapped in a broader denunciation of the community (“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging made me kill a nigga blacker than me?”). But Lor Scoota doesn't have the luxury to explicitly denounce violence or the community. He is still surrounded by that violence, still navigating the community. His political statement is about the cost of survival, the need to stay close to your friends, the mental toll of repeatedly seeing the death on Instagram.

Yet the Vox piece and similar critiques of hip-hop miss these artists and more importantly their message. Hip-hop finds itself sentenced to a marginal existence. It is here for our entertainment, but rarely attains the artistic credibility bestowed even to pop music. The same can be said about black art and black music writ-large. If black voices and black art matters, then would we be arbitrarily deciding what is or what is not political? Would hip-hop then all of sudden become so political? Or would we have seen black voices as inextricably political from the beginning?

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