Hip hop, like any other genre has some central tenets to it based on their origins. Rock has traditionally been pioneered by the rebels and mold-breakers, country values those with Southern attitudes and an enjoyment of things typically associated with the redneck life, and these sorts of themes can be found in virtually any major genre of music.
Hip hop is an interesting genre to discuss since we are constantly watching it evolve. Even today, there has been a rising discussion of whether so-called "mumble rap" should be considered a viable part of rap culture.
One of the most interesting themes to watch is a fascination with mortality and death anxiety. Death anxiety is a phenomenon that most humans experience in life when confronting the end of our physical existence. While this is something important to everyone in one way or another. However, it is difficult to think of genres that deal with the existentialism created by the concept of death. Three modern rappers have some very interesting responses to this concept in their songs.
"Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" - Kendrick Lamar
If you haven't listened to good kid, m.A.A.d city, you're missing out on one of the best rap albums to come out in the past decade. I cannot recommend listening to this album in its entirety enough.
For those of you who haven't yet listened to it, the album tells the story of how Kendrick was initiated into gang life and how he eventually escaped it and began his rap career. The true story is set with the backdrop of Compton, a city that has a fairly bad reputation when it comes to crime. This is a common thing to be the inspiration for rap, considering the fact that rap found its origins in ghettos and impoverished neighborhoods.
In a neighborhood where it's completely possible to be shot down at any time, it's only natural that people would be vocal about death: almost every rapper has lost a friend to gang violence. Kendrick, being a member of a gang, was more than familiar with the horrible things that his friends and neighbors were put through. In the first verse, Kendrick channels his friend's brother recounting the death of his brother and his desire to find vengeance for the act. Though his hopes for a better life are shown, his words are cut short by gunshots as he was killed before Kendrick released his album.
The second verse takes a very different perspective: that of a young woman who sells her body and hates Kendrick for discussing her friend's story. She discusses the pain that she feels in being forced to become a prostitute, but is indignant at Kendrick daring to look down at her.
When Kendrick finally takes the mic as himself, he does his best to explain why he talked about these previous moments. By singing about them in his music, Kendrick has kept them alive by telling their story to others. But Kendrick questions if he's done enough to deserve to be remembered. He obsesses over death and is fascinated with it, but his greatest fear seems to be that he is unworthy of being praised after he passes on, thus dying eternally and falling away from memory.
Summer Friends (feat. Jeremih) - Chance the Rapper
The second half of Kendrick's song discusses his acceptance of Jesus into his life as a redeeming moment and a major turning point in making him the person he has become. But while he is clearly a God-fearing man, he doesn't seem to have the same kind of faith that Chance does.
One of Chance's biggest influences is his deep-seated Christianity. Throughout his discography, he has consistently made references to God. But he does so in a way that most other rappers don't: he constantly praises the works of God. With his newest album, Coloring Book, Chance even has a song that entitled Blessings in which he talks about all the ways he feels he has been blessed by God.
It's widely accepted that the hardest time to have faith is when we go through loss. While growing up in Chatham, Chance was brought face-to-face with just as much violence as Kendrick did, though he didn't ever find himself wrapped up in the gang violence. In many of his songs, he refers to the friends that he grew up with who he lost to gang violence.
Instead of becoming angry at the injustice of having his friends taken away, Chance instead puts his faith in God and believes that what was done was done for a purpose. He takes comfort in the fact that he will see them again when he dies and goes to heaven to be with God and all his disciples. This is one of the most common answers to death anxiety, as it has appeared throughout the majority of history. The promise of a life after death changes the idea of dying from an ending point to a transition.
Power - Kanye West
While it seems strange for a man who refers to himself as a god to be someone that is a devout Christian, Kanye has been adamant about his beliefs since the release of his song Jesus Walks on his debut album. What he actually refers to when talking about godhood is the ascension beyond mortal that celebrities take on.
In a way, Kanye's thoughts on death are a combination of what Kendrick and Chance discuss. He has been extremely vocal about his beliefs (once again, see Jesus Walks), with one of the more notable moments being the release of his single Only One. In it, he channels his dead mother looking down at him from heaven and talking about how proud she is of all that he's gotten out of life. He has an absolute belief that he will one day be reunited with her in heaven, as will the rest of his family.
But unlike Chance, he does focus very heavily on death. Instead of being focused on whether he's worthy of being remembered, he knows for a fact that he will be. But he's also not satisfied with just being remembered, he wants his works to be considered amongst the best works of art.
His mentality is best described in Power. Throughout the song, he raps about how people shouldn't have all the power that celebrities are given. as it goes to the point that they can control most of the aspects about their worlds. He's conflicted about his position and fame and isn't always sure what to do with his power.
The ending of the song takes on a very different tone, where he repeats lines about having a "beautiful death". Kanye is one of the few artists to ascend beyond just the realm of artist and into a living work of art. Every aspect of his life is focused on furthering his art, every part of him is branding his name and expanding his brand. Thus, it makes sense that for a man who seeks to make his whole life into a work of art that he would want his death to be one of the most beautiful points of his life.