Every week I will analyze a number of rap songs that have similar stylistic qualities, and explore what makes them effective and significant in their respective genre. This column will tackle a broad range of hip-hop, ranging from the poetic to the downright ignorant and amoral. Particularly ignorant, because stupid music can still be good music damn it. This column aims to dispel the myth that one can’t unironically enjoy and appreciate lyrically shallow music; “Fuck up some Commas” by Future is just as valid as anything by Wu-tang.
We will begin this week with some older songs by artists that you most likely have heard before: “All falls down” by Kanye west and “Same love” by Macklemore. These songs both share a technique used to accomplish their goal. Both songs begin with a novel perspective that instills sympathy in the listener before introducing and addressing the songs main statement.
Kanye’s original working title for “All Falls Down” was going to be “Self Conscious”. This song explores the topic of self consciousness and how one tries to conceal it with vanity (“things we buy to cover up what’s inside”), this was a novel concept for a rap song at the time. Kanye even said in an interview “what other rapper you heard talk about being self conscious?”. Not to say it was completely unheard of , but it certainly wasn’t common on a mainstream platform. Particularly because this was at a time where their was a huge polarization between so called “conscious” rappers, such as Common, who spoke about social responsibility, and gangster rappers (I would hope that this is a pretty self explanatory title). When Kanye first came out he bridged the gap and defied this type of categorization “Always said if I rapped I would say something significant but here I am rapping about money hoes and rims again”.
The first lyrics in “All Falls Down” are “I promise she so self conscious”. Kanye then explores this character before expressing his own insecurities. For the majority of the song he speaks about himself and his own experiences, but by using characters the listeners to develop a sense of empathy that allows the songs message to resonate with the listener. Kanye uses this song structure as a tool to make his insecurity more palatable. In doing this he also makes the issue’s more universal.
In the inverse of Kanye’s use of character as a means of distancing himself from a sensitive topic, Macklemore begin’s “Same love” by stating “When I was in the 3rd grade I thought that I was gay”. Instead of introducing the song with the experience of a another character he uses his own. Unlike Kanye who creates a situation that “allows” him to be vulnerable, Macklemore uses his own vulnerability to allow him to touch on the sensitive issue’s covered in the song. For many in the LGBTQ community, it can be invalidating for a privileged white heterosexual male to be the main voice of their struggle. However he uses this technique as a preemptive strike to being criticized, something Macklemore is well versed in. Both these songs are products of a changing environment in hip-hop, one that allows MC’s like Drake to thrive. The years since Kanye’s debut have reduced the former stigma for rappers freely expressing themselves and being vulnerable on their songs. As went on the divide between gangster rappers and conscious rappers began to shrink. Now we celebrate songs that may have been seen as a paradox back in the day. Take “Throw Away” from Futures Monster mixtape that transitions from a casual sex anthem to a more intimate post break up track that functions as the thematic centrepiece of the mixtape.
In the current age of rap, artists use both fictional characters and themselves to help communicate the messages in their raps. It has become easier for rappers to do this as the scene has shifted away from stoic expectations towards the more personal and emotional, which is seen in the works of Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and J. Cole.