Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3
What began as an avenue of expression, hip-hop quickly became a commercialized product that fell victim to media-enticed stereotypes and materialism. As a means of capitalizing on the hottest trends in entertainment, record labels began to urge artists to reinforce images of black male hyper-masculinity and unruliness, marginalization and objectification of women’s sexuality, and the sub-par educational standards of the inner city within the confines of their music. This then ushered in a new phase of hip-hop that appeared to have lost sight of its historical roots as a mouthpiece for the community to the larger world. This has aided in the coining of the common saying/ belief that “hip-hop is dead”.
While many agree that in a larger sense, hip-hop has lost its way, there are many popular hip-hop artists including Common, Lupe Fiasco, Jay-Z, Nas, and Outkast who have successfully injected the original essence of hip hop into their music while maintaining their monetary longevity within the mainstream arena. In other words, they have been able to produce chart-topping hits that are embedded with commentaries on the issues facing their communities. However, in order to do so, these artists have created an illusion of adhering to the stereotypes of the industry but through their use of metaphors/ personification, manipulation of the beat and background aesthetics, and carefully crafted lyrics, they have been able to defy those stereotypes. This is due to the fact that artists have traditionally been forced to choose between success and protest as “cultural expressions of discontent are no longer protected by the insulated social sites historically encouraged the resistive transcript…particularly when it contradicts and subverts dominant ideological positions.” (Rose, 101)
Before a single word is uttered, the listener is being fed clues as to the “hidden transcript” embedded in the song. The beat is preceded by a series of dog barks that continue throughout the entire track. While, aesthetically, one might attribute that to the seemingly violent lyrics that are to follow, there appears to be more at stake here. Traditionally, dogs are symbols of violence and carry a notion of being unruly, which is one way of interpreting this feature of the song. Additionally, one might also consider the fact that the voice of the dog, the bark, is too considered to be untamable, much like the beast making the noise, as it resonates continuously and rather uncontrollably and sporadically. This can be seen as sending Nas’ way of sending a message to not only his listener but to the media that one can “attempt to contain the beast but not control his cry” (Saddick, 111). Other songs including Lupe Fiasco’s “Put You On Game” send similar messages with his use of repeated gun shots throughout the song and ending in a resounding single shot at the very end and appearing to cut off the last word of the song. Fiasco here appears to be sending a very strong message of violence but juxtaposes that with the “cutting off” of ones voice by the supposed violence he is portraying via the gunshots.
To help the audience decode the “hidden transcript”, artists have been forced to be creative with their delivery tactics as well in order to assist in the decoding process. Additional features of the coded protest embedded in “One Mic” include a very noticeable increase in volume around the middle of the first and second verses juxtaposed with a soft and mellow repetition of “all I need is one mic”. While this can easily be interpreted as a display of anger and a sense of hyper-masculinity that is said to be stereotypical of black males, it is critical to examine the moments of vocal elevation in each verse. A noticeable switch occurs when Nas begins to reference a need to acknowledge “hood politics” in the first verse, the fact that “bullets tear through the innocent” in the second verse, and when he begins the third verse he speaks of his ability to be that “one life… one man” to affect change and stand for something better. Consistently, Nas appears to raise his voice when speaking of issues concerning the issues in the “hood” and lowers his voice when is reflecting on his own life. Additionally, he ends each moment of “rage” with a famous quote from many activists of the Civil Rights Movement: “the time is now.” In doing so, Nas makes it clear that this song, while blatantly angry and upset, is calling on the oppressed to act now and encourages other artists to use their one mic for good. He furthers his message to his fellow artists when he concludes his final chorus with commentaries like “f*** the car, the jewelry/ all I need is one mic to spread my voice to the world.”
“One of the central reasons that hip hop artists, music, and culture as a whole have been criticized as “dangerous” lies in the power of the performing body to subvert traditional, hence safe, modes of representation in America, even as it embraces the commodity capitalism of the American Dream.” (Saddick, 113) In other words, hip-hop has been kept on a tight leash by the music industry in an effort to curtail any notions of disrupting social order, even as it relates to this notion of the American Dream. The Saddick article goes on to speak of the ways in which a double standard exists as it relates to hip-hop and the rest of the world. According to Ice Cube, “To be American is to flaunt what you got [...] and to try to have a little more than the next man” (Saddick, 110). If this is true, then it becomes difficult to justify society’s criticism of hip-hop as being egotistical.
Songs like Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” and Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High” are littered with the personal pronouns and references to monetary success; however, they provide various lyrical clues that their intent is to either mock those in “power” in the industry or to personify an issue facing the community. Fiasco’s “Superstar” presents metaphorically speaks about the industry as being like a party with a guestlist, only the “more famous people… and the sexy lady next to you” can get in. He goes on repeat “If you are…a superstar, then have no fear, the camera’s here/ [the crowd is here] and they want a show…” as if to mock those artists who make egotistical claims, put present nothing on stage. He later says, “the audience ain’t phased and they ain’t gone clap and they ain't get gone praise” as if to suggest that consumers and listeners are not impressed with these claims. Additionally, the last verse frames a scenario where the artist that waited in line for “tickets” to the industry, got to the front, and they had ran out of tickets. He then begs to be taken back to him home. This can be read to correlate with a need for artists to “come back home” much like in West’s “Homecoming” representing a return to their foundations.
An issue that has recently received significant amount of attention from scholars is hip-hop’s blatant objectification of women’s sexuality. Rooted in the statistically proven notion that “sex sells”, plenty of artists have jumped at the opportunity to sell more records at the expense of the image of minority women at large. Some artists, however, have creatively found ways to embed a larger message underneath lyrics that appear to objectify women. A famous example of such a metaphor can be seen in Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and in Kanye West’s “Homecoming”. Common, specifically personifies the development of hip-hop as a woman he met when he was young that he has watched grow into a commercialized “tragedy”. He metaphorically speaks of hip-hop’s selling out as being like this girl he loved in his youth that has been “turned out” by people that took advantage of “her” and enticed her with promises of money and diamonds.
Similarly, Kanye West’s “Homecoming” speaks of how his hometown too became plagued with issues facing other urban communities in America. He speaks of how he left and didn’t look back until now when things have changed. In his second verse he even states, “if you really cared for her then you would never hit the airport to follow your dream… I guess you never know what you got till it’s gone/ I guess this is why I’m here…”. On the one hand one might interpret this to be Kanye simply reminiscing on a childhood crush, but he sets the record straight, as does Common, by explicitly stating “I’m talkin’ bout Chi town” or Hip-hop for Common. While mapping their journey to discovery or destruction for the “women” in their songs, they are sending their respective communities a strong message/ warning about the direction in which they are moving and thus taking their communities with them.
While there appears to be an number of artists that fail to recognize any aspect of the historic culture of hip hop in their music, there is also a commendable number of artists that do. Concerning the population of artists that do attempt to speak on behalf of their communities, they are forced to code their message of protest behind the “public transcript” that packages hip-hop into boxes of stereotypes. In order for hip-hop to sell, the industry executives have set the precedent that sex, money, and violence will control this industry. Therefore, in order for artists to get signed and even get their voice heard, they are forced to give the impression that their music is “boxable” (fits a category of the stereotypes). This technique makes it difficult for a reader to reinterpret, but the artists provide various clues to aid in that process. The listener has to not only be open to alternative interpretations, but it often requires them to pay close attention to various artistic aesthetics that are often overshadowed by a need for a catchy beat and chorus.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
Saddik. Annette J. "Rap's Unruly Body: The Postmodern Performance of Black Male Identity on the American Stage." The Drama Review, Winter 2003, Vol. 47, No. 4, 110-27.
Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3