Rap’s undeserved bad rap

Rap undeservedly gets a bad rap. People sometimes associate rap music with drugs, violence, the degradation of women, sexual exploitation, etc., but this blanket stereotype for an incredibly diverse and culturally important genre of music is unfair. Of course, some rappers and songs do include content which could be considered as perpetuating a negative message and influence on listeners, but that shouldn't — and doesn't — apply to rap as a whole.

In this column, through some of my favorite albums, I'm going to try defending rap music as not only undeserving of the negative stereotypes some people hold against it but as a source of lyrical and musical beauty, cultural and social awareness, and even political messaging.

1. J. Cole's "KOD"

I remember listening to this album as I was studying for finals last year but having to switch to something else because I kept getting distracted by the lyrics to each song. KOD is certainly not one of J. Cole's more popular albums, but, centered around themes of drug addiction and abuse, love, depression and even taxation, I think it's full of wisdom nonetheless.

In "BRACKETS," (as in tax brackets), Cole seems to state that taxpayers should have more of a say in how their money is spent by the government — emphasizing the way in which the needs of underprivileged, often Black, communities are ignored by those elected to help. Taxation has always been a contentious political issue, and this song (a RAP song) inserts itself right into this debate:

"Maybe 'cause the tax dollars that I make sure I send / Get spent hiring some teachers that don't look like them."

"Let me pick the things I'm funding from an app on my screen /  Better that than letting wack congressman I've never seen dictate where my money go / Straight into the palms of some money-hungry company that makes guns / that circulate the country and then / Wind up in my hood…"

In "FRIENDS," Cole talks about drug addiction and humanizes drug abuse not as a personal failure but as something much more complicated:

"Blame it on crack, you can blame it on the system… Blame it on the strain that you feel when daddy missing… What I'm tryna say is the blame can go deep as seas."

"Running from yourself and… buying product again / I know you say it helps and no I'm not trying to offend / But I know depression and drug addiction don't blend."

2. Mac Miller's "Swimming" and "Circles" 

These are probably my two favorite albums. Not only are they beautiful individually — existing as a chilling work about Mac's struggles with mental health, drug addiction, fame and growth, with "Circles" being released posthumously after his death from an accidental drug overdose — but the way in which the albums speak to each other is also incredible. The somber theme of the cyclical nature of life is encapsulated in the combination of the two album titles: "Swimming [in] Circles" and in many of the songs themselves. I would highly recommend watching this fascinating analysis video from the Dissect Podcast that speaks to the musically circular structure of the two albums.

The podcast breaks down both albums and their cyclical nature in a way that honestly changed the way I think about music as a whole:

In the last song on the "Swimming" album, called "So It Goes," Mac says, "My God, it goes on and on, just like a circle, I go back where I'm from." The podcast explains these lyrics may allude to the idea of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" in the Bible — evoking the circular, and impermanent, nature of life. And, following this circular path, in the first song on the subsequent album, "Circles," Mac says, "I cannot be changed… Trust me I've tried / I just end up right at the start of the line. Drawing circles."

So, the second album picks up where the first album ends — completing the circle. This circular, existential theme of these two works is presented not just through the lyrics, but through the music itself. The last chord on the final song of "Circles," called "Once a Day," ends on what the podcast calls an "unstable chord" — and "when our ears hear an unstable chord like this, we crave resolution to a more stable chord" which "gives a song a feeling of completion." Ending the final song on an unstable chord which "craves resolution" was a conscious musical decision, as the first song on this album, called "Circles," begins on a "stable chord" — again closing the circle between the end of the album and the beginning. As the podcast describes it, "the album 'Circles' is a circle."

Seeing these two albums broken down in this manner made me see that rap — and music in general — isn't just a string of words layered over instruments and sounds. There's so much complex and beautiful technicality that goes into music, and rap is certainly not an exception to this art form.

3. Kid Cudi's "Man on the Moon: The End of Day"

Finally, I have to include Kid Cudi here too. His music is one of many examples of how rap is so diverse and multidimensional. With aspects of a multitude of genres ranging from hip hop to rock to indie to alternative, "Man on the Moon: The End of Day" is another album that feels like a poetic stream of consciousness, as he talks about mental health and the struggles that come with being human.

This line from the song, "Soundtrack 2 My Life," sounds like it could be from a poetry book — exemplifying the poetic nature of rap:

"I try and think about myself as a sacrifice / Just to show the kids they ain't the only ones who up at night / The moon will illuminate my room / And soon I'm consumed by my doom."

The willingness of rappers like J. Cole, Mac Miller and Kid Cudi (and so many more) to talk about mental health, drug addiction, alcoholism and their own struggles through their lyrics is incredibly important in lifting stigmas regarding mental health. There are so many other examples in the genre of rap of artists using their platforms to reshape the conversation regarding mental health among their (sometimes, mostly male) audiences who otherwise might not want to talk about these issues.

So, rap is kind of beautiful — lyrically, technically and in terms of the social (and even political) power it can have. If you're one of those people who thinks all rap is just about drugs and sex and violence, think again.

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