I often hear the same grudges against hip hop repeated by “intellectual types” over and over again: that the genre is ignorant, it requires minimal talent to succeed in, and that it is by nature pro-drugs, pro-violence and anti-women. For a while, there wasn’t too much material I could point to and say, “Listen to this and you’ll change your mind.” Well, not anymore. 2015 has been a year of validation for rap lovers everywhere.
Rap has the potential to become a vehicle not only for important social and political commentary, but for emotional truth as well—for the inescapable meeting of bravado and emotion that has underpinned all wars and conflicts since the dawn of time. It seems the genre is finally living up to its potential. If the last couple of months are any indicator, hip-hop is about to become the most important art form in the world. Maybe even more than an art form: a platform.
Exhibit A: In December of last year, neo-soul legend D’Angelo released his long-anticipated third studio album, Black Messiah—his first major release since 2000’s Voodoo. The album springs at the listener with the force of a tiger poised on his haunches for 14 years. There’s no rapping; it’s a gorgeous political statement woven out of funk and falsetto.
Exhibit B: This March saw the surprise release of young prodigy Earl Sweatshirt’s sophomore album I Don’t Like S**t, I Don’t Go Outside, a lethargic, angst-ridden meditation on the futility of youthful rebellion. It’s dark and totally awesome.
Exhibit C: In late January, underground superstar Joey Bada$$ laid waste to his critics by calling out high society’s phony activism and slavery to privilege with immeasurable swag in an album of clarity and importance. It is aptly titled Bada$$.
Exhibit D: On April 3, Scottish alt-rap group Young Fathers followed up their Mercury Prize-winning debut with a second album, White Men are Black Men Too, that chases labels and prejudice away with the ease of a pop riff and humanizes conflict instead of polarizing it.
Exhibit E: Last but not least, the piece de resistance, the David of Rapaissance art, sculpted by the movement’s own Michelangelo: To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar. Here is the cornerstone of my argument, so excuse me if I focus heavily on it. The album combines what I love about each of the others I’ve mentioned: the soulful jazz of D’Angelo, Joey Bada$$’s brutal honesty, Young Fathers’ emphatic political commentary and Earl’s emotional vulnerability. It is truly a perfect album, a work of art that will go down in history as one of the universal greats, right alongside Nas’ Illmatic and 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, and could even stand on its own among historic non-rap legends like Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the best part is that it’s not just a collection of songs—Kendrick is bringing back the art of the album to mainstream music. Listen to Butterfly from beginning to end, like you should with all albums but don’t, and the reward is an hour-and-a-half long spoken-word poem about reconciling black pride with black self-loathing, depression with self-love, gang loyalty with black unity. It’s really complicated, but that’s what makes it so refreshing. In fact, that’s what sets all the new albums apart: their long-awaited recognition of modern life’s complexity.
I know what you’re thinking at this point: Where does a privileged white guy from the suburbs get off lecturing me about the importance of hip-hop? To be honest, it is hard to listen to this music and applaud its message without feeling a little guilty about being part of the system that makes the message necessary. But it’s more important for someone like me to appreciate that than anyone. It helps build empathy for a culture that is often seen as lesser, labeled the “ghetto” or more wonkishly, the “welfare state.” If more artists can speak honestly and push aside the forced bravado that poverty often necessitates, we know that things might be getting better. If more Kendricks and Joeys can emerge from the hood and use their bitterness to create something beautiful, to “pimp a butterfly” if you will, instead of using it to kill or trap or glorify those enterprises, we know things might slowly be getting better.
So long, dark ages. Welcome, Rapaissance.