Breaking down the clichés: Rap
Violent, objectifying women, self-obsessed, poorly written, plagued by money and drugs… Rap is probably the musical genre faced with the most clichés. Clichés that may keep you from digging deeper beneath the surface and enjoying it. And guess what? Like all clichés, they hold a hint of truth but hide most of the reality. So let’s break them down! Born in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York City, rap is the lyrical component of the Hip Hop culture. Add DJing, break dancing and graffiti art and you have all the ingredients of a rich culture that has been able to spread all over the globe. To the point where it is now one of the most popular musical genres. What was once a means of expression for the African American community has started a process of gentrification… for better a worse. Without any further ado, let’s get on today’s subject!
“It’s all about violence, money, drugs…”
You’re only thinking about gangsta rap, aren’t you? There is a whole world of rap beside gangsta rap and then, gangsta rap itself is closer to political than most people think.
There’s no denying that rap is the musical genre most used to convey political messages. In “Protest Song”, French rapper Médine turns the word rap in an acronym for “Rythm And Protest”, which proves to be quite fitting. In France, we often refer to that subgenre as “conscious rap”, to denote the artist's awareness of the situation. They use that musical medium for a wide variety of subjects, like the treatment of the population from foreign origins (Kery James - Lettre à la République) or to promote alter-globalization ideas (Keny Arkana - Gens Pressés).
It’s the same thing all over the world. In 2018, the Thai collective Rap Against Dictatorship drew worldwide attention with their song ประเทศกูมี [My Country Has], in which they denounce the political situation in their country.
Tip: turn on the subtitles
They’ve since then released more work, their latest one got out in February and takes jabs at the SOTUS system, a rather extreme hazing tradition in Thai university that tends to be glamorized by boy love books and series, popular in Thailand. In the same line, we could also mention BTS predebut track 학교의눈물 [School of Tears] which talks about bullying in schools and the lack of help for the victims.
In the USA, in 2017, Prolific The Rapper teamed up with A Tribe Called Red for the song “Black Snakes” fighting against the pipeline project near Standing Rock in North Dakota and delivering a powerful message for the preservation of mother Earth. The artist was even facing 7 years in prison for filming on the protest site but has since then been acquitted. While the pipeline is now in place and working, the legal battle still continues, with the lastest win for the protesters on March 25th, when a federal judge ordered a new environmental review of the project.
But rap can also get more personal and emotional, telling personal stories or sharing a more general message. In “The Best of Times”, Sage Francis recalls his childhood, the bittersweet song breats down the idea that those years are the best ones, as we’re often told. This song is one of his lighter works, in the very emotional "Make Em Purr" he reflects on the grim and lonely reality of his 30s, vowing to make his 40s purr.
In his song “อย่าอาย” [Don’t be shy], Thai rapper Blacksheep encourages us to let it go and cry to let the bad moments behind in order to get better. With its memorable melody and a powerful music video, this song does really make an impact on the listener.
Thankfully rap can also be much more lighthearted. In the song “Sunshine”, that almost crossover to pop, the group Atmosphere creates a simple but fun track, perfect for a lazy spring or summer day. And I can’t avoid mentioning the super cute music video that is sure to put a big smile on your face!
"Rappers can't write..."
How do you assess the quality of writing? One way would be the diversity of the vocabulary. A study by The Puddling has quantified the number of unique words used by rappers in the first 35 000 words of their lyrics. The results? Rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan (6 196 words) or Sage Francis (5 543 words) easily beat Shakespeare (5 170 words). Who would have guessed?
With his finely crafted texts, it’s no surprise that Aesop Rock takes the cake, with 7 879 unique words, his complex lyrics could be considered verbose by haters, but they are very interesting once you get used to it. In his song Zero Dark Thirty, he refers to the - in his opinion - less than thrilling language of newer rappers.
“Roving packs of elusive young become Choke-lore writers over boosted drums In the terrifying face of a future tongue Down down from a huntable surplus to one” Zero Dark Thirty - Aesop Rock
The same study also made a comparison with rock and country. And rap is far ahead. But let’s be honest here, it’s mostly due to the jam-packed nature of rap lyrics. Newer rappers, whose songs are closer to pop songs in their form, tends to have a far less diverse vocabulary, logical since their texts are far shorter than more traditional rap texts.
“Bitches be mad when they see Cardi step in the spot Said that you 'bout it, we know that you not I'ma pull up on bitches as soon as I drop” Cardi B - Press
That sounds all wrong, doesn’t it? You may be tempted to say Cardi B is butchering the English language. Well? Not quite. This is actually AAVE (African American Vernacular English), a variety of the English language. No more and no less valid than our beloved British English. The use of AAVE is widespread among rappers, and for the noninitiated, it can sound pretty terrible! In the end, language is just a code among a group of people, just because that code is different from the mainstream one, is it worth any less?
"Rap is self-obsessed..."
For sure, rap talks a lot about rap! As Youssoupha says in “Chanson Française”, “I rap about rap since because of him I don’t have a life anymore”. This track is one of the best examples of the way rap can talk about itself while still being innovative and filled with nods to fellow artists. Quite a different take than the traditional diss tracks rappers seems to love so much.
Rap mixes well with pop music, we’ve known it since Eminem popularized it in the early 2000s. And I won’t start on rap metal which was a hit in the same period (Linkin Park? P.O.D.?). Instead, I’d rather talk about rap meeting country music. And no, I’m not thinking about Lil Nas X’s recent hit “Old Town Road” featuring a country singer. Yelawolf who really managed to blur the line in his 2015 album Love Story.
"Rap is sexist..."
We’ve all seen a fair share of objectified women in rap music videos or heard lyrics that were less than positive about women. There’s no denying it. But women have also been part of the Hip Hop culture since its early days. Rap has even lent itself to be used to spread feminist messages.
Surely Nicki Minaj’s seemingly bubblegum rap may leave you a little puzzled if that’s the only picture of women in rap you have. But let’s be honest, it’s still a guilty pleasure to listen to, at least for me. But artists like Sa-Roc can create real feminist anthems, as “I’m her” demonstrates.
Swiss rapper KT Gorique also proves, if it was ever needed, that women can have perfect flow and well-chiseled writing. In “Puisse Le Flow” she talks about social injustices and the suffering that comes from them.
I hope this may have changed, even slightly, your views on rap - if you weren’t already a fan. What’s your stand on that kind of music, why do you love it or loathe it?