Criticisms of Hip-Hop Reflect Misconceptions

James Tanford, Contributing Writer

I see the small, judgmental glint in my friend’s eye as he looks over my music playlist. Common. The Roots. Kanye West. Joey Bada$$. Lupe Fiasco. Hopsin. Black Star.

He’s thinking, he listens to rap?

He hands me my phone back, disgusted, and proceeds to lecture me on how this “music” is degrading, unintelligent and how, because I’m white, I shouldn’t really even be listening to it.

Um … excuse me?

In five seconds, he just exemplified every misconception people hold about rap: that it is a skill-less mishmash of sex, drugs and misogyny. This is unfair. Hiphop gets a bad rap; at its best, it’s skillful, poetic and politically aware commentary that has messages for everyone.

Think it doesn’t take skill? Have you ever tried to rhyme like rappers? Eminem, for example, rhymes nearly every single word with another in “Lose Yourself,” and in “Legacy” the end of almost every line for the entire song sounds the same. He’s not alone: Talib Kweli, Nas, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson and others all flow entire songs together and leave very few words unmatched. Aesop Rock, famous for his intellectual and sometimes verbose lyricism, drops gems such as “eye for an eye, by the bog life swamps and vines / they get a rise out of frogs and flies / so when a dogfight’s hog-tied prize sort of costs a life / the mouths water on a fork and a knife.” These lyricists employ rhyme schemes in a way that makes the entire song flow, and this takes immense talent.

Worse still is the belief that all rap music is “club music,” songs with no purpose other than to glorify sex, drugs and women. This is unbelievably wrong. Political commentary has always been a central focus of rap music, often about life in working class neighborhoods (see “Clock with No Hands” by The Roots, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas, and “C.R.E.A.M” by Wu-Tang Clan for some classic examples). Today, it has branched out. Macklemore talks about his battle with alcoholism and loss of religion in “Neon Cathedral” and the negativities of consumerism in “Wing$.” J. Cole holds a conversation between two people debating abortion in “Lost Ones.” Common, in “Testify,” describes a woman committing a crime and then convincing a jury that her husband did it. Lupe Fiasco does a song about his label literally telling him his lyrics and song subjects are too complex in “Dumb it Down.” Heck, even Kanye West, one of the most egotistical, self-centered, and frustrating people on the planet, turns good when he raps, doing songs like “All Falls Down” in which he talks about the relationship between economic standing and insecurities, particularly in the African-American community.

Yes, there are songs like “Pussy, Money, Weed” by Lil Wayne or “Birthday Song” by 2 Chainz, and yes, club bangers are a dime a dozen, but that is not all of rap by any means.

People occasionally have made it very clear to me that they dislike rap music and, by extension, that they judge me for listening to it. I don’t care if you don’t like rap, but to say that it isn’t “art” and to say that people who enjoy it are lowbrow and “don’t know what real music is” is an unbelievably elitist and condescending thought. I grew up in Indiana. I have plenty of friends who listen to country. I, for one, don’t enjoy it, but I don’t look down upon people who like it. Who cares what music they like?

And my race? Why does that play an issue? Many people have claimed that rap is going through “cultural appropriation,” often pointing out that Eminem and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won the last two awards for “Best Rap Album” at the Grammys and that many white rappers, such as Iggy Azalea, seem ignorant to the fact that rap has historically been central to African-American culture and aren’t aware of their place in it. J. Cole even addressed it in his song “Fire Squad,” pointing out that “white people have snatched the sound / this year I’ll probably go to the awards dappered down / watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”

The insensitivity of white rappers to the history of the rap community and their relatively new place in it — and their attempts to acknowledge it — are sometimes just awkward. Iggy Azalea has been attacked for her lack of involvement with and insensitivity toward the black community after the Ferguson shootings, and Macklemore was ridiculed by, among others, Ice Cube and Drake after posting on Instagram an “I can’t believe you didn’t win!” text he had sent to Kendrick Lamar after the 2013 Grammys, which merely looked like a shallow attempt to show how aware he is of his cis-white-male privilege. This insensitivity, however, is not the entire story: For the most part, Macklemore has been very aware of his privilege and has acknowledged how it probably helped him win the Grammy. (His album, by the way, was very good. It wasn’t that unbelievable that he won.) White rappers and rap groups like Eminem, Atmosphere and Brother Ali have all acknowledged, in interviews and in songs, the difficulties and life of being an outsider in the rap community and how their race might make them more appealing to many consumers.

But as a listener, why play the race card? Who cares what race you are? Yes, I had a privileged upbringing, two parents in a loving, upper-middle-class community, and no, I don’t know what is it like to grow up without parents or money or friends and have never experienced many of the things rappers talk about. But can I not appreciate the poetry, the intricate telling of their lives, their messages of hope, despair, love, greed or confusion? I don’t have to live it to think it’s beautiful.

Listen to rap. Don’t listen to rap. Nobody cares. But first, you should know what it actually is.