Hip hop has a bad ‘rap’.

August 3, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More

Whether you consume rap and hip-hop or not, you know the genres have dingy reputations. I believe the hate for hip-hop and rap blossomed in the 90’s. Rappers were actually cold-blooded gangsters at the time, people who occasionally shot one another. The music reflected the turmoil that its creators had experienced- growing up in crack-infused ghettos, resorting to crime to scrape by, and dying in a swarm of bullets even if they did finally make it out and become famous.

“I’m twenty-three now but will I live to see twenty-four/ the way things is going I don’t know,” Coolio said in “Gangster’s Paradise”, and he was by no means a Tu-pac; he was gangster-rap-lite. The depression of 90’s rappers manifested itself in loud, brash talk of guns and glory; no wonder white outsiders were scared. The violent content of 90’s rap inspired Tipper Gore and their ilk to censor and criticize with fervor, cementing rap’s image as a crude, violent genre for future gang-bangers.

Hip-hop and rap also have the reputation of being degrading to women. This present stereotype was also inspired by past trends. After 90’s gangster rap subsided, it was replaced with a money-cash-hoes mentality. In the early aughts, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and others spat mainly about their wealth, their rise from the streets, and the women that their amassed wealth could attract (Jay-Z wrote a song called “Money, Cash, Hoes”).

Women were called hoes and bitches in earlier rap and hip-hop songs, it’s true, but in the early 00’s the music seemed more intently focused on the subject. Rap and hip-hop from this period was all about the ascent into fame, and the amassing of expensive objects. One of these objects happened to be attractive women. “I’m into having sex, I’m not into making love,” 50 Cent reminds listeners in one of his most popular singles. Thus rap and hip-hop received another nasty label: it was degrading and shallow.

However, a quick listen to the who’s-who of current rap and hip-hop will demonstrate that old labels no longer stick. Turn on the local hip-hop or pop station and try to wait for a violent, crude or degrading song. You will fail. Hip-hop has moved into a new phase, and it is one with a much better message. Many songs still revolve around sex, unsurprisingly, but they attack from a whole new perspective: they discuss respectful, communicative relationships of mutual enjoyment.

Image by stuttermonkey (creative commons)

Image by stuttermonkey (creative commons)

Take “Birthday Sex” by Jeremih. The song is all about the narrator (presumably Jeremih) pleasing his special lady with sexual delights as an earnest birthday present. The song depicts a sincere, even-handed sexual relationship. “Boyfriend Number 2” by Pleasure P takes the sex-positive message even further: Pleasure P is the male ‘mistress’, the man on the side, and the song is a sorta-empowering exultation of women who have their sexual needs met when their partners don’t cut it. “Second place always got a whole lot to prove,” Pleasure P sings. This is clearly a song that doesn’t put women down- if anything the singer is subordinate.

Rap and hip-hop have become more respectful of the ladies in other ways, too. Ne-Yo’s song “Miss Independent” is devoted to the fact that: “There is something oh so sexy about/ a woman who don’t even need my help.” The woman in the song “walks like a boss/ talks like a boss,” pays her bills and rules her life– and it’s a big turn on. Women in hip-hop videos may often be booty-shaking honeys, but current songs demonstrate they can be much more. Ludacris’ song “Nasty Girl” discusses a long line of sexy doctors, sexy students, sexy church go-ers and sexy business ladies- beautiful, confident and sexually empowered all.

The supposedly harsh standards to which rap holds women is ebbed by songs like Drake’s “Best I Ever Had”. Drake raps: “Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin with no makeup on/ that’s when you’re the prettiest”. That sounds…almost lovey-dovey. Ooey-gooey romance is, in fact, another rising trend in hip-hop: many songs are now about love and fidelity, not big pimpin’. Soulja Boy, formerly of the questionable “superman that ho” variety of hip-hop, sings about long-distance romance in “Kiss Me Thru The Phone”. The song is all about maintaining devoted contact with a girlfriend, despite busy touring schedules and other demands. Kanye West and Ne-Yo also muse on love in the song “Knock You Down”– in an extended metaphor, Ne-Yo describes his past life as commander of a “pimp ship”, shot down into a new-found monogamy by a “pretty little miss[ile]”. The rest of the song is an ode of love and adoration, a celebration of settling down.

These songs are among the most popular in rap and hip-hop music today, and I believe they represent a real trend. The genres have gone through a long and confused maturation: the gangsters hit it big, became obsessed with their riches, passed the torch to a new generation of materialists who then learned to put their energy into more meaningful pursuits. The result is bouncy, catchy music with lyrics that are decidedly tame. Many rap purists no doubt feel dismay at this boring, safe turn the music has taken. I still listen to more harsh underground rap from time to time, but I am encouraged to see that rap can lose its bitter edge and stay listenable and fun. The anti-rap prejudice of the 90’s must fall away– the current stuff is as safe as the Jonas Brothers.


Category: American Culture, Art, Bigotry, Censorship, Culture, Language, Media, music, Sex, Videos

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (2)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    My understanding is that Rap began as extemporaneous beat poetry in in urban ghettos. Originally the lyrics protested racism and government corruption,but soon started to glamourize gangs as modern versions of Robin Hood and his merry men.

    Rap and hip-hop began to gin popularity among suburban teens going through their "rebel without a cause" phase and music publishers seized the market, promoting the works with the most shock value to teens who wanted to distinguish themselves from their parents.

    In promoting the gansta life style it also popularized a lot of the racial machismo stereotypes and by doing so, actually worked against the original intent of the art form. So as the audience matured, rap and hip-hop went back to it's roots and became better than ever.

    This maturing process seem to be common in all styles of music in our mass media environment.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Niklaus: I think your understanding is spot-on. Rap didn't really begin as a violent or even crude art form– Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC are positively poppy and innocent. Rap just happened to take a turn for the 'worse' as it was gaining mainstream popularity. Kanye West outlines the evolution of rap quite well in the song "Crack Music" (though he links the pop-ification of rap with the demise of urban blacks at the hands of crack and AIDS, in a very paranoid way).

    But I'm no censorship wonk; I think intense, violent rap music can also have a message. The best example is "Dance with the Devil" by Immortal Technique (linked about at the end of my post). I encourage everyone to check it out- it is a beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes revolting narrative about gang violence and the pursuit of wealth. And it certainly doesn't glorify a checkered past.

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