Let me acknowledge at the outset that I run the risk of coming off as a curmudgeon, or a Republican housewife, or Dave Grohl at this year’s Grammys, but I’m compelled to level a complaint against hip-hop.
Let me also acknowledge that I have been a devoted fan of pioneers like A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, Biggie, Nas and N.W.A. since I was fifteen, so I can approach the issue with at least a semblance of authenticity.
That said, I find it increasingly difficult to justify a serious interest in the genre given its substance. The language of hip-hop is, and for the most part always has been, almost exclusively misogynistic, homophobic, materialistic and violent. This is not to say that these qualities are not present in other forms of music. The Rolling Stones, for instance, received their fair share of feminist backlash for “Under My Thumb,” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” made the Sex Pistols the most feared band in the world in 1976. Nor would I argue that music would be better off without these qualities. God forbid we condemn ourselves to endless reissues of Barry Manilow records. The problem is that, with little exception, hip-hop’s rhetoric never strays from the grotesque and the degrading.
Take as an example the single “Rack City” by Tyga. The ubiquitous club hit has peaked at number eight on the Billboard Top 100 chart—in short, it’s really, really popular. And yet the lyrics read like infantile, stream-of-consciousness nonsense. I’m tempted to write it off entirely as a mindless pop song, but that’d be a cop out. Top-40 radio listeners don’t need to approach music with a critical sensibility, but to reward such drivel with airplay and record sales is downright irresponsible. It’s a troubling time when profane, moronic tripe like “Rack City” passes as mass entertainment.
Of course, most music critics would agree that “Rack City” is awful and serves as a poor representation of the genre, like saying that Nickelback is rock and roll. So let’s look to a group that has received nearly universal critical acclaim, N.W.A. Several members of the outfit—Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E—are legends in the rap world, and their 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton is considered one of the most influential ever recorded. It’s difficult for me to commend them, though, because most of their lyrics are unprintable and the messages in their songs are shockingly inflammatory. We should think carefully before we canonize a group whose primary ethos is “To a kid lookin’ up to me/ Life ain’t nothin’ but b**es and money.” Say what you will about the expression of young black frustration or the realities of ghetto life—Marvin Gaye tackled those same issues in What’s Going On without resorting to vicious obscenity. Does “Fk tha Police,” with its celebration of dead cops, really belong next to Innervisions?
Women especially are vilified in hip-hop to an extent that rivals most hate groups. Song titles like “Bes Ain’t St” and “A Bh Iz A Bh” telegraph a motif that pervades an astonishing majority of hip-hop rhetoric. In fact, I challenge you to find five popular rap songs that don’t refer to women as bes or hs, or glorify adultery, or portray women as sub-human objects. The fact that this is difficult at all indicates a sad state of affairs. Even Jeru The Damaja’s 1994 track “Da B**ez,” which humorously distinguishes between upstanding women and their unpleasant counterparts, is the product of a disappointingly misogynist agenda.
This all ultimately points to a cult of machismo that can’t help but be destructive to everyone involved. The only way to succeed by hip-hop’s terms is to outdo all of your competitors. And your competitors, it seems, are everyone else in the world trying to do anything productive. The pursuit of wealth and status and sexual prowess and authenticity have been utterly fetishized by the rap community, an alarming trend when you consider that a significant portion of our youth idolize these musicians. If some kid’s heroes are telling him to treat girls like dirt and that money buys happiness, well, you can bet your britches he’s gonna believe it.
That’s not to say all hope is lost. Conscientious objectors like The Roots and Mos Def are out there releasing quality, intelligent rap albums all the time. Conscious rap, as it’s called, is a small but important sub-genre that deserves critical attention. But until music writers come to their senses and stop lavishing praise on acts like the objectively abhorrent Odd Future collective, we will remain stuck in this positive feedback loop that precludes reason and good taste.
Now, as I await the inevitable hate mail and rebuttals, I will do as any old-fashioned humorless square would do and put on Straight Outta Compton. After all, “F**k tha Police” is one of my most-played songs in iTunes.