Hip-hop, at age 40, is like a middle-aged man who’s done quite well for himself. He’s the dominant subculture of his era. He’s wealthy and global and selling out stadiums from Tampa to Tokyo. The generation belongs to him. But in middle age, a man can see the end. He wonders how much longer he has and what his legacy will be. He wonders if the things that will kill him are already inside him, beginning to drag him down. And so it is with hiphop—40 something years after the beginning of recorded rap, the question is real: Despite a body that will go on functioning for years to come, is hip-hop dying?
At the beginning, rap was treated like the soundtrack of the apocalypse. In some ways that was par for the course—new subcultures are always frightening to grown-ups. They’re almost always believed to be the ruination of the youth. Jazz, rock, punk, and disco all elicited that fear. But rap in the ’80s was, supposedly, a violent subculture that had rumbled up from the ghettoes of New York and was destroying the moral fiber of the youth. Where baby boomers had prized groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, the kids loved groups like Ice Cube and N.W.A. Soul music was about uplifting the spirit and spreading love and helping make it easier for men and women to dance together, but rap was about the pain and anger of a generation and real stories of life on the street. Rap was a festival of testosterone and rap concerts were filled with fights. And a few times people even got killed at rap shows. How could this not be the soundtrack for the end of days?
It was not. The kids were fine. I know. I was one of them. I loved rap from the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang on the radio. And when I heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five I was blown away. We were expressing ourselves in a way that fit us and our moment in history, and beyond the hysteria, the majority of rap culture had nothing to do with violence and everything to do with peace, intelligence, and self-esteem. At almost every early rap concert the rappers said something like, “If you love yourself, say Ho-oh!” The whole crowd shouted back, “Ho-oh!” The rappers said, “If you make your own money, make some noise!” And the whole crowd cheered. Rappers said, “All the ugly people be quiet!” And the building roared. Hip-hop was all about building self-love.
There are at least three core attributes that fueled hip-hop's rapid ascent. One was a sense of authenticity. Another was a sense of being innovative. And of course there was a sense of being frightening to outsiders. The authenticity was in everything from the plainspoken lyrics about the reality of street life to the clothes that made rappers look like they just rolled out of the house and stepped onto the stage. Where R&B and rock stars got all dolled up, rap stars dressed to look like their audience. And once they started rhyming the innovativeness was obvious. Small bits of what we would now call rapping had appeared in songs by the Last Poets, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimi Hendrix, and others but rapping for the entire song was an entirely new approach.
And the further rap went, the more MCs had to find new words to rhyme and they had to make words rhyme that didn’t really rhyme. And they had to find samples that no one had heard and manipulate them in new ways—it was all about being new and different and fresh. Young rap was so innovative we even prized new ways of tying our shoes. And, of course, this new subculture was scary to our parents and the establishment—any serious subculture needs an enemy and when you’ve got parents and the media standing outside the gate, railing against the culture you love, telling you that it’ll ruin your life, that will only make you love it more. Hip-hop thrived on that. The audacity, the streetwiseness, and the power of hip-hop inspired years of pearl-clutching articles and news reports as if rap had burst into the house that was American pop culture and plopped its dirty Jordans on the national dinner table and lit up a blunt and ruined the whole meal.
Young rap scared the shit out of the American news media and the grown-ups. Rap fans loved that.
Decades later, everything is different. Rap, the scary young boy, has become hip-hop, the nation’s dominant subculture. It’s like the way young Jay-Z, the law-eliding fast-rapping coke dealer from the Brooklyn projects, has become 40-something Jay-Z, the domesticated father of three and the husband of the world’s biggest pop star and the owner of a $100 million mansion in Bel-Air, California. On his first album, Reasonable Doubt, Jay rhymed about his regrets over shooting his brother. On his last solo album, 4:44, Jay rhymed about his regrets over cheating on his wife. Hip-hop is grown now and for a culture that was defined by being a revolutionary upstart here to buck all the rules, being grown is challenging.
Is hip-hop still authentic, innovative, and scary? Well, it’s still authentic, at times. Jay-Z is authentic when he rhymes about cheating on his wife— he’s being painfully honest about his life. Lots of people cheat on their wives and beg for forgiveness. Drake was authentic on his last album, Scorpion, when he rhymed about the child he fathered and supports and loves but doesn’t raise. Childish Gambino was surely authentic when he critiqued his country on 'This Is America.' Authentic can’t possibly be restricted to honestly telling tales about the street. Authentic means being real about you and your world. Many of the top MCs now are wealthy parents so the sort of stories they can authentically tell are different than what kids off the block can say. That said, yes, much of hip-hop sometimes comes across as about as authentic as the WWE, with rappers inhabiting character roles. The tough guy. The cool guy. The hypersexual. The intellectual. The druggie. It can be hard to know who’s talking about their real life and who’s telling a story and who’s adopted a persona.
Sometimes I look at young rappers and it seems like they’re following a rapper starter kit—get lots of tattoos, lots of diamond jewelry, a distinctive hairstyle, and a name that starts with Lil. I’m not saying Lil Uzi Vert ain’t authentic, I’m saying there seems to be a lot of sameness in the younger gen. In a world where Bhad Bhabie can have a viable rap career, there are some authenticity issues, and there’s an audience that has grown far beyond those who care about hip-hop.
Is hip-hop still innovative? Many longtime listeners bemoan the way many big, young rappers use far fewer words and leave more open spaces in their verses, but after a decade dominated by the lyrical speed and sonic density of verses by Jay, Nas, Eminem, and others, you couldn’t get much more complex. Kendrick Lamar maintains their legacy, but most in the next generation seem to have decided that the way forward was to rhyme more slowly. Music from Migos, Future, 21 Savage, Travis Scott, and others does that. Many of them rely heavily on ad-libs which turn their verses into a sort of conversation with themselves, which can sometimes be really interesting. Sometimes. Is hip-hop still scary? Uh, no. No culture could truly be scary after four decades—the people who are grown-ups now, the parents, the media leaders, many grew up as hip-hop fans. People know hip-hop ain’t gonna be the ruination of America’s youth because they themselves grew up on hip-hop. Without the ability to scare people, has it lost something essential to its power?
Hip-hop has grown from brash, young revolutionary to commercialized elder statesman but it’s still very much alive. It’s become part of the fabric of America. Hip-hop is a vibrant tableau that ranges from the grown child genius of Pharrell to the madness of Kanye to the fun of Lil Yachty to the craziness of Tyler, the Creator. Hip-hop today is about as complex as the nation itself. As a whole hip-hop comes close to reflecting the breadth of the country from the project rhymes of A$AP Ferg to the next gen hippie rhymes of Jaden Smith to the intellect of Anderson. Paak to the love rhymes of The Carters. From the Bronx swagger of Cardi B to the Southern swag of Gucci Mane to the West Coast flavor of Schoolboy Q. Chuck D used to say rap was Black America’s CNN because it gave us the news on what was going on in Black communities. But now it’s bigger than that. Hip-hop is a mirror on society.
I remember how in hip-hop's early days, rap culture seemed fragile like a baby that might die if we didn’t take care of it. Nowadays no one expects hip-hop to die anymore than we expect America to die. Hip-hop has become part of the firmament of America but in that process, it has become a giant cultural mirror on America. Hip-hop is one of the most important lenses on the nation that we have. We need hip-hop to be able to see America clearly. Hip-hop is like the glasses through which we can see America more clearly. So, as long as there is an America, there will be hip-hop helping us see what America really is.