Many conservatives don’t like hip-hop. Go figure.
The typical conservative case against the genre amounts not to music criticism, but to the charge that it promotes cultural pathologies. Rap group N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton is the representative example. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and MC Ren, got together in the titular L.A. suburb and wrote a violent and political collection of songs that included “F**k the Police.” The album met with outrage from conservatives, and since its release the conservative mind has identified hip-hop with a rhapsodic glorification of violence. Most rap, the critique goes, feeds the violent loop that mars inner cities, whose residents scorn the justice system and settle scores outside it.
The first track on Straight Outta Compton is a clue that the critique might be wrong. The song begins with the sobering reminder that, “When somethin’ happens in South Central Los Angeles, nothin’ happens. It’s just another n**** dead,” letting that last word echo before the music kicks in. In other words, N.W.A., which became infamous among conservatives for glorifying violence, began its first album by noting how pervasive such violence is in their hometown, and how little anyone seems to do about it.
Of course, I can’t defend N.W.A.’s call to shoot police officers. But the conservative critique of hip-hop reduces a genre that contains multitudes to its least defensible instantiations.
Take the work of Nasir Jones, stage name Nas. Steeped in the Queensbridge housing projects, where crack and crime were ascendant in the 1990s, Nas released Illmatic when he was 20. The album alternates between observation and aspiration, chronicling the blight of Queensbridge before assuring residents, “The World Is Yours.” He raps, “My strength, my son, the star will be my resurrection/Born in correction, all the wrong shit I did/He’ll lead a right direction.” The production is pioneering, but it’s the words skeptics should attend to.
The group Mobb Deep, consisting of Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita, released The Infamous when they were 21. Prodigy raps on “Survival of the Fittest,” “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from/You could run, but you can’t hide forever/From these streets that we done took/You walkin’ with your head down, scared to look/You shook.” The production by Havoc is brilliant, setting the mood with spare percussion, ominous piano loops, and distorted city sounds. But, as with Illmatic, it’s the words that critics should hear: When Prodigy and Havoc sing of living in a war zone, they make it sound terrifying rather than glamorous.
Hip-hop can be about more than the glorification of urban violence. Indeed, in hip-hop, more often than not, violence is a fact of life to be lived with, or overcome.
These albums are among the genre’s best, and the immediate takeaway for listeners is that hip-hop can be great art. But the further point, evinced by the steely resolve of Mobb Deep, the ambition of Nas, and the lucid portraits both paint of Queensbridge, is that hip-hop can be about more than the glorification of urban violence. Indeed, in hip-hop, more often than not, violence is a fact of life to be lived with, or overcome.
That basic truth has been lost on many conservatives, who ignore thoughtful albums like these and continue to condemn the genre outright. They point to contemporary rappers like Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar and label them dispensers of all that is wrong with hip-hop culture.
Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly features an incendiary image of black men celebrating a faceless white judge’s death. But his musical talent is undeniable, and his lyrics, rather than glorifying violence, are a complex meditation on life as an African American. One can take issue with his politics while still appreciating his artistic achievements and contemplating the point of view he brings to his work.
Staples skews even more to the political Left, but the substance of his music subverts the standard conservative critique of the genre. Experimental production combines with unrelenting, matter-of-fact descriptions of brutal violence in Long Beach, Calif. to deliver a dizzying look at the psychological damage that growing up there can inflict. On his first album, Summertime ’06, he raps about “the deadly game of tag, the older generations passed to us.” Of the album’s title, he has said, “Youth was stolen from my city that summer, and I’m left alone to tell the story.” Some glorification.
The genre is filled with talented musicians like these. Conservatives may not agree with their politics, and may be repulsed by the crime or drug use that some rappers thoughtlessly champion. But to say, as many conservatives do, that hip-hop is culturally corrosive is to demonstrate a lack of familiarity with the music itself.
This remains an unfortunate blind spot for a political movement with a checkered record on race. Reform-minded conservatives have convincingly argued that the path up from white-identity politics runs toward a civic nationalism that is pan-ethnic, one that celebrates the shared cultural and artistic achievements of all Americans. If they’re right, then the conservative mind ought to rethink hip-hop, a sometimes-great and always uniquely American art form.