by Brendon Spencer / BlerdUp
Two years ago, I hypothesized that a new wave of rap was coming. I used social, economic, and political changes in the U.S. to chart waves within the music. I reasoned that the coming recession and the rise of Trump would push rap into a new era. Once COVID-19 hit, I thought back to my piece. Would artists adapt and speak to the times, setting us on a new path?
So far, mainstream rap’s answer has been lackluster. Future and Drake are two of the first major artists to drop projects in the middle of the pandemic. Future’s High On Life was the usual drug and alcohol filled bravado with short pauses for shallow introspection. Drake’s Dark Lane was a collection of leaked loosies and a shameless attempt to make a new dance go viral on TikTok (because dance hits lose some value when dance clubs have been closed for months worldwide).
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist announced Alfredo and set it to be released on the fourth day of protests around the country sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd. While I have always enjoyed projects from the Indiana MC, I expected the same subject matter as he has always rapped about: the spoils of selling drugs. Indeed, that’s what I got. While I could certainly recognize Gibbs’ incredible talent as a wordsmith, what he was talking about did not interest me at all. While listening to the album, half of my brain was with the people in Minneapolis, Kentucky, and dozens of other cities across the U.S. I knew I was not going to revisit this album for a while.
For years, Black people have used the prosperity themes of rap as the soundtrack to their daily hustle. It has also been a fun escape or place to daydream of a position that they could possibly obtain, in one form or another. But when a recession hits — and the one we are in may last for quite some time — will we react as positively to that subject matter? When Black people suffer massive job losses, witness their loved ones dying from disease at record rates, get blinded by rubber bullets as they protest for freedom, and see the president on the brink of declaring martial law, will they return to their cars and homes to bump the aforementioned albums?
Many have promoted Black capitalism as the best way to improve our condition. Indeed, there are many positive examples to support that on a micro level. However, on a systemic level, there will always be an underprivileged, oppressed class under capitalism. Indeed, how many rappers brag about their wealth while putting others down for not hustling enough? It is literally a conservative “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” talking point in blackface. It completely ignores the reason they had to hustle in the first place as well as the reason countless of their own people will NEVER be as fortunate to get where they are. Changing the color (and gender) of faces who have “seats at the table” still ignores the despicable nature of the table itself: what it takes to get and stay there as well the necessity of mass exclusion, whether it be politics and economics. Capitalism literally requires hierarchy in order to function, and it is the root of the racist system we have been fighting against for so long.
Black capitalism as a means of progress is slow, incremental, and problematic. Jay-Z’s controversial NFL deal is a great example. After nearly a year, it has done very little for Black people. However, in one week, the protests of millions forced the NFL commissioner to finally apologize for not listening to players like Colin Kaepernick about racism. The biggest changes in our country have always been achieved by the masses in the streets — not in boardrooms or the benevolence of rich individuals.
Sure, rappers like Freddie Gibbs would not have had to sell drugs in order to prosper if they grew up in a more just and equitable society. However, given the state of the U.S., I do not think many would want to escape to his world right now. And if overthrowing capitalism and its violence, reinforced by racism, should be the ultimate goal, then do we really want to return to the world where people like Gibbs came from — whether the revolution succeeds or not?
If not, where do we go from here?
A great model could be the latest Run The Jewels album.They have been producing banging anthems for protests and revolution for years. On their newest project, they continue to address problems in our society: corporate greed, our climate crisis, the dangers of ICE, and more. Take Killer Mike’s lyrics on Walking In The Show for example. In a quarter of a verse, he connects the school to prison pipeline to media manipulation to police brutality with an Eric Garner reference, which is still unfortunately relevant five years later after his death:
The way I see it, you’re probably freest from the ages one to four
Around the age of five you’re shipped away for your body to be stored
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
There are other factors that distinguish Run The Jewels 4 from the other recent releases. First, they aggressively advocate for more direct action in regards to social revolution, something that Black people and their allies are currently engaged in around the world. Second, the album was released for free. In relation, there is a recurring message that discourages the pursuit of accumulating money, which is the anti-thesis of current rap trends of chasing the bag. The backdrop of their first video single is a post-revolution party, where the masses are literally destroying their money in solidarity for a new future. For further criticism, check El-P’s verse on the album’s closer:
I used to wanna get the chance to show the world I’m smart
Isn’t that dumb? I should’ve focused mostly on the heart
’Cause I seen smarter people trample life like it’s an art
So bein’ smart ain’t what it used to be, that’s fuckin’ dark
You ever notice that the worst of us have all the chips?
It really kinda takes the sheen off people gettin’ rich
It is peculiar that for a genre as youth-led as rap is, these 45 year old men are taking the lead — perhaps setting the tone for the year and possibly the decade. They have been forward thinking since their debut. In contrast, it feels like many of our favorites, young and old, are still clinging to past paradigms — and, in my view, it is stagnating the genre in a world that has gone through significant changes.
Hip-hop music has been a cornerstone of Black culture for nearly 50 years and has helped power protests all over the world. Given the energy in the streets (Ya’ll burned down a damn police station!), we have never been closer to the revolution that we have envisioned for centuries. As we push forward, we need music that not only represents us today but music that inspires us to imagine and work towards a better tomorrow. In order to do that, we as a people are going to have to rip the band-aid off that is Black capitalism, as it fundamentally opposes what true progress and freedom should really be for us all. There is no going back.
Brendon Spencer is the founder of the BlerdUp podcast (which focuses on “nerd content” through a Black cultural lens), a DJ, and Splatoon 2 enthusiast.
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