Is the Time Right for a Conscious Hip Hop Comeback?

April 30th, 2013

(Photo: Courtesy of EMI Records, Courtesy of Def Jam Records)

By Jacob Rohn

With the continued scrutiny of President Obama, an economy that has many people “threatening” to move to Canada and prescription drug addiction yielding a shocking number of high profile deaths, isn’t it time for hip hop to go back to being the streets’ CNN instead of continuing to look more like the music version of MTV’s Jersey Shore?

With each decade that passes it becomes increasingly rare to find substantive music among the Billboard charts leaders or Top 40 radio stations. Hip hop has perhaps been the most visible example, but each genre can make a good case. Perhaps the best example of this great digression is the comparison between the original Woodstock Music Festival, which took place in 1969, and the revamped version, which took place in 1999. The original was quite possibly the greatest example of music as an imbedded part of the culture. Ideologies manifested themselves with every figure and the anti-war sentiments became a movement whose soundtrack would forever be immortalized as a bookmark in American culture. Conversely, the 1999 Festival was best remembered for a string of fires that audience members started as organizers and security struggled to control a belligerent and voracious crowd of almost 200,000.

Hip hop is quite possibly the perfect microcosm of how much more valuable a catchy hook has become than a meaningful message. Acts like N.W.A., Public Enemy and Run DMC found mainstream success while maintaining their positions as the voices of the streets. Less than a decade later, Tupac Shakur bridged the gap between club hits and meaningful fables in a way that no one had ever seen, mixing songs like the raunchy “How Do U Want It” with cautionary tales like “Wonder Why They Call U B—h.”

Since the 2000s, however, commercial success has become largely dependent on a song’s presence in the club, with most of the more meaningful songs being relegated to anonymity. Artists like Talib Kweli and Common, while popular among college crowds, seldom garner enough mainstream attention to bring the issues they rap about to the forefront of public consciousness. So what or who has the ability to create a paradigm shift that will resonate across an entire culture? Watch The Throne for the answer.

Arguably the single biggest holy s–t moment in hip hop since the days of N.W.A. was when Kanye boisterously exclaimed “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live television. Though many people despised Mr. West for such insubordinate actions, it created a dialogue and forced people to take a closer look just how poorly Hurricane Katrina (which affected mostly African-Americans) was handled.

Then you have Jay-Z, who struck back at politicos who criticized his visit to Cuba with the scathing, politically-charged “Open Letter.” Time and time again, Hov has demonstrated just how much he sets the tone and the trends in hip hop.

The two covered a lot of pressing issues on 2011’s Watch the Throne album, but the songs that monopolized the radio waves were “Otis” and “N—-s In Paris,” while songs like “Murder to Excellence,” which chronicled Chicago’s black-on-black crime epidemic, and “New Day,” which details the perils of growing up as the child of a black celebrity, went largely unnoticed by the mainstream.

With the middle class shrinking daily and racial and socioeconomic issues continuing to go under publicized, it’s time that hip hop goes back to serving as the voice of those who aren’t being heard instead of sounding like the soundtrack to the nightlife of the wealthiest 1 percent.

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