A momentum has been building in hip-hop over the past year and driving it are artists like J. Cole, Drake and A$AP Rocky, among several others. However, this “New School” of hip-hop is typified by Kendrick Lamar, who released a verse last week on the Big Sean track “Control” which is both a declaration of his preeminent role in, and a call to arms for, this “New School”. In the verse, notably overshadowing the other two very strong verses by Big Sean and Jay Electronica, Kendrick raps, “I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ with; But this is hip-hop and them niggas should know what time it is” before listing his leading competitors (including his colleagues on the track and the aforementioned artists). He goes on:
“I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas;
Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas;
They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you niggas;
What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high;
Who tryna jump and get? You’re better off tryna skydive…” (All lyrics via RapGenius)
These lyrics, along with his claim earlier in the verse to be “the king of New York” in addition to his already widely proclaimed ascension to the West Coast throne, blew up Twitter and, with reason, was the talk of the hip-hop literati. This, however, is more than a simple rebirth of the rap-battles of old, an assertion of many of those in the hip-hop community. It is also not an arbitrary jibe at other rappers for a personal victory (although that has certainly been a partial result), he is calling for a genre-wide renaissance that he is both confident enough to lead and a self-aware enough to know is bigger than him.
This consciousness is widely apparent in Kendrick Lamar’s music, whose character runs the spectrum from slam poetry (see I am (Interlude) from his debut album “Section.80”) to lyrical story-telling (see Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst from “good kid M.A.A.D. city”), to radio hits (see Swimming Pools also from “good kid M.A.A.D. city”). This flexibility alone would place Kendrick Lamar above a vast majority of his contemporaries into the elite of the hip-hop universe, but what sets him even further apart and adds gravity to his work, is the sense of social awareness and responsibility to his family and community that is expressed across his albums. This is not left solely in his music but is often expressed in his interviews and at his concerts.
In a recently released short documentary, published on Jay Z’s website Life&Times, there is a moment where Kendrick addresses the crowd at a concert saying, “We didn’t run to [the] mainstream, we made the muthafuckas come to us!” The mainstream of pop music, let alone hip-hop, has been a place where “conscious rap”*, that which carries a social message, has never truly been welcome. Rappers that remain exclusively “conscious” like Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Common and Mos Def, while moderately renowned, remain unfortunately and undeservedly outside the popular consciousness. However to say that Kendrick is a “conscious rapper” would be incorrect. He himself eschews the label, claiming “he is not the next socially aware rapper” toward the end of Section.80 (see Ab-Soul’s Outro), and he is right. No “socially aware” or “conscious” rapper has had the mainstream appeal that Kendrick Lamar has received since the release of good kid, M.A.A.D. city. This popularity, along with the rise of the New School movement in hip-hop that has been marked by similarly socially conscious or self-aware songs from J. Cole and Drake, comes at an opportune time for the discussion of racial inequality in the United States.
The sixteen-minute documentary was released just days before a weekend which marked the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and relates the story of the Top-Dawg Entertainment (TDE) crew that includes Kendrick, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, all four of whom come from the LA-area, specifically Compton, Watts, South Central and Carson respectively. All of these areas are renowned for being centers of unemployment, poverty and gang violence, drug use and imprisonment; topics that are widely apparent in all of the TDE crew’s music, but especially so in that of Kendrick Lamar. The album, which became an instant classic and rocketed Lamar to global popularity, was, in its entirety, a novel-like immersion into the reality of life in impoverished LA and urban areas across the country.
This reality is a part of what Christopher Phelps, in a recent article first published in Dissent Magazine and subsequently picked up by Salon.com, calls the “third great American system of race and class, the successor to chattel slavery and formal Jim Crow.” This system, which for Phelps “operates so subtly that it gives only the barest appearance of being a system,” idealizes diversity while producing injustice. It is one in which the promises of a utopian, “impersonal” free market that ignores race, have never been fulfilled, instead creating a reality where “in every significant metric—income, wealth, employment, education, housing, poverty, debt, longevity, incarceration – black Americans fare much worse than whites.” Phelps calls on us to “overlay our narratives of race upon our narratives of capitalism” so as to force our politics to “combine race and class just as reality does.”**
The system Phelps so poignantly illustrates is one that has caused the poverty, the gang violence, the overcrowded prisons and the crack epidemic. In this it has also given rise to the music of Kendrick Lamar, the rest of TDE and hundreds, if not thousands, of other rappers who speak on these issues and come from these environments. While violence and greed has often been glorified in the hip-hop community (a secondary result of the immediate environment created by the “third system”), this New School of hip-hop is changing that tone. Kendrick Lamar still raps about drive-bys, getting “fucked up”, prostitution, and getting rich, but he does so not to glorify them but to artistically portray them as the reality in which he was raised and warn his audience of the associated dangers. In doing so Lamar is combatting this firmly entrenched system, and, in his most recent verse, is calling the rest of the New School to follow his lead. He is king after all.
*Conscious rap itself is a debated and controversial label that some artists embrace and others deride. I admittedly use it here as an umbrella term that sheds light on the situation of politically motivated lyrics in the hip-hop world.
** This summary does not do justice to an article that brilliantly parallels the dreams of King for both social and economic equality to the failures of the current system as well as the recent events which have once again highlighted racial injustices in the US including the Trayvon Martin case, the repeal of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act and, more positively, the investigation of cutting mandatory minimum sentencing. I encourage the reader to engage the article in full.