Whether it was being derided by George Bush and Bill Clinton or criticized by Keith Richards as a genre of "So many words, so little said," rap music has received a lot of flack over the course of its short life. The same arguments pop up over and over again: rap promotes violence; rap is chauvinistic; rap isn't meaningful and never has a message. And (my favorite), rap isn't music.
Yet things have changed. While in the 1990s one had to defend their choice of music almost anytime they put a rap cassette into the tape deck, in 2016 hip-hop is arguably the most popular genre in mainstream music. You can't turn on the radio without hearing Kendrick Lamar or Flo Rida, and who can honestly say they've been to a house party in the last few years at which no rap was played? Nevertheless, with the recent popularity of trap music, which is heavy on hi-hats and auto-tune but not usually artistic integrity, some of the old criticisms have started to reemerge. Sometimes these come from rappers themselves and sometimes from members of older generations that will never open their minds to hip-hop. Kids born within the last 10 years may grow up thinking of rap with the same scorn that was prominent in the '80s and early '90s. So with that in mind, here are five hip-hop tracks that prove the genre is not only a legitimate art form but one of the most expressive and poignant of our generation. Keith Richards might want to take notes.
1. Ice Cube - "A Bird in the Hand"
Possibly because of his status as one of the originators of gangsta rap, many people have forgotten that Ice Cube largely traded in his image as a gangster for one of a political activist after leaving N.W.A. In "A Bird in the Hand" from his 1991 album "Death Certificate," Cube crafts a vivid tale of a young man who can't afford to feed his infant son on a minimum wage job and insufficient government support until he resorts to selling crack. A far cry from the bragging about being a drug dealer that one might expect, Ice Cube lays it out plainly for the listener, saying:
"Do I have to sell me a whole lotta crack
For decent shelter and clothes on my back?
Or should I just wait for help from Bush
Or Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH?"
The track is also insanely funky.
2. Jedi Mind Tricks - "Shadow Business"
When Jedi Mind Tricks' lead emcee Vinnie Paz isn't talking about shooting people, he occasionally writes something moving, passionate and eye-opening. On "Shadow Business" Vinnie illustrates, point by point, the hell that slave laborers in Chinese sweat shops and American prisons go through every day to bring us the products that we take for granted in the first world. In a lyric that's refreshing amongst the chauvinism pervasive in much of rap, Paz tells us that in sweatshops "The women have to try to placate the boss/ Because there's sex discrimination in the labor force." Here, Paz only implies that women are taken advantage of sexually, yet the lyric is more powerful for it. This is just a taste of a song that is dark, disturbing and lyrically genius in its truth.
3. Killer Mike - "Reagan"
Most people know Atlanta rapper Killer Mike from the Outkast single "The Whole World" or his group Run the Jewels with fellow rapper El-P. But Mike's solo work is strong as well, and there is no evidence of this as great as the track "Reagan" from his "R.A.P. Music" album. Like Vinnie Paz, one doesn't always get to see Mike's political side, but when it comes out he blows the listener away. Weaving personal experience with national concerns to great effect, Mike pulls no punches with lyrics like, "Thanks to Reaganomics/ Prison turned to profits/ Because free labor's the cornerstone of U.S. economics." If the track isn't mind-blowing enough for you, keep in mind that Mike claims to have freestyled the whole thing.
4. Immortal Technique - "The 3rd World "
It was hard picking a Technique track for this list. Many people would go for "Dance with the Devil" or "The Cause of Death." Yes, "Dance with the Devil" has a twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan pass out in surprise and "The Cause of Death" is a 9/11 truther's dream, but the message in the former is largely lost in the storytelling, and the latter is inclined to lose many people with its heavy focus on conspiracy theories. "The 3rd World" is Technique in his prime; he's perfected his flow since "Dance with the Devil" and unlike many of the lyrics in "The Cause of Death," it's hard to argue with Technique's blunt demonstration of Latin American history in "3rd World":
"You kept us caged in
Destroyed our culture and said that you civilized us
Raped our women and when we were born, you despised us
Gentrified us, agent provocateur divide us
And crucified every revolutionary messiah"
Listeners are also treated to the flawless way the Afro-Peruvian rapper switches between Spanish and English, and an earthy, Caribbean-flavored beat courtesy of DJ Green Lantern.
5. Public Enemy - "Fight the Power"
Using Black Panther imagery long before Beyoncé came along, Public Enemy provided the intelligent, socially and politically conscious East Coast alternative to N.W.A.'s West Coast gangsta rap in the late 1980s. "Fight the Power" is one of their best-known tracks, and not just because it was the theme song to Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing." It is an anthem of rebellion that is arguably the quintessential anti-establishment song of the last 30 plus years. A major factor in the track's success was the crossover appeal present in the track's message, which led to popularity among a white audience as well as black hip-hop heads. As Ice Cube put it, "Black people aren't the only ones fed up with the system. White kids...are tired of their so-called leaders failing them too...When Chuck D raps 'Fight the Power', these kids know what he's talking about..."
Nevertheless, Public Enemy speak from a black experience, one that pushes to the forefront in "Fight the Power" the question of why America's heroes are always white:
"Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant s**t to me as he's straight up racist
The sucker was simple and plain
Motherf**k him and John Wayne"
It's important that P.E. aren't remembered primarily for Flava Flav's appearances on those god-awful VH1 programs. If nothing else, "Fight the Power" should cement their rightful place in American music history.