Conscious rap is unique within the history of hip-hop because it’s less affiliated with a city or scene than a philosophy, a set of ideals, and a way of viewing rap importance. The subgenre of hip-hop was inspired by a number of powerful figures and events of the 1960s and 1970s, like the Selma march, a general sense of Black pride and Black power, social change, and artists keyed in on political awareness like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
Conscious hip-hop as a music genre can be traced back to Public Enemy, the group that galvanized African-Americans across the country with their political rap and focus on oppression, social issues, poverty, and community pride. While they were doing their thing in New York City in the 1980s, across the country in Compton, N.W.A. were blending gangsta rap ideals with a profound conviction in their mission of showing how all rap songs could be conscious hip-hop songs when focused on Black unity.
Hip-hop artists across the country began galvanizing around political music that blended political hip-hop with funk, ideas of socialism, and the dawn of a new era. Inspired by groups like The Watts Prophets and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, De La Soul were among the biggest acts in the late 80s, leading independent labels and mainstream major labels alike to focus on the style.
The 90s were chock full of an expanded vision of what conscious hip-hop could be, and artists across the country were aligned in this vision. There was Common in Chicago, Mos Def, Talib Kweli (and their work together as Black Star), Dead Prez, and KRS-One in New York, and The Coup and 2Pac out in Cali. Though conscious hip-hop crested in the early 2000s, there were still a number of artists who continued to honor that vision into the 2010s and still espoused these ideals. Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco is one such artist, as is Killer Mike from Atlanta and Harlem-bred Immortal Technique. Together they’ve created a new face of conscious hip-hop, one adequately suited to continue fighting for racial equality, justice, and freedom for all. – Sam Armstrong
YG (feat Nipsey Hussle): FDT (Still Brazy, 2016)
Released before Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, “FDT” speaks about the perceived dangers of the then-candidate. YG calls out about Trump’s views and comments on minority groups, and how his possible presidency makes him appreciate ex-President Barack Obama. With an assist from Nipsey Hussle, “FDT” is a throwback to a time when socially conscious hip-hop was fearless and spoke boldly to authority.
Nas: Cops Shot The Kid (Nasir, 2018)
Queensbridge’s favorite son speaks about one of the most talked-about issues currently plaguing US society – police brutality. Produced by and featuring Kanye West, “Cops Shot The Kid” shows Nas addressing police abuse dating back to Emmett Till. With a minimalist beat and a hook that samples Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” “Cops Shot The Kid” has a throwback feel musically, but lyrically it’s more timely than ever.
Kendrick Lamar: How Much A Dollar Cost (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
As one of the leaders of the new generation of conscious hip-hop MCs, it’s only right that Kendrick Lamar delivers a story that is multi-layered and ripe with metaphors and double meanings. As Kendrick tells the story of a conversation between him and a transient, he reveals just why he is regarded as one of the top wordsmiths of his generation.
Common (feat Stevie Wonder): Black America Again (Black America Again, 2016)
Common holds up a mirror to urban America, discussing everything from guns, drugs and mass incarceration to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and police brutality. With assistance from Stevie Wonder, Chicago’s finest MC lays out the modern-day urban agenda in this conscious hip-hop cut.
Prophets Of Rage: Take Me Higher (Prophets Of Rage, 2017)
Only a supergroup consisting of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Tim Commerford, Tom Morello and Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine could deliver an engaging and thought-provoking song about drones and their potential misuse and abuse. These accomplished veterans to leave no stone unturned.
Public Enemy: Man Plans God Laughs (Man Plans God Laughs, 2015)
“Do it for the culture, do it for the youth” is the bridge of “Man Plans God Laughs” by Public Enemy. The self-proclaimed Prophets Of Rage, who demanded we “Fight The Power” back in the day, don’t disappoint with an updated version of the noise that they so powerfully brought us back in 1987.
Vince Staples: Bagbak (Big Fish Theory, 2017)
“We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office/Obama ain’t enough for me, we only gettin’ started,” Vince boldly declares on “Bagbak.” The Long Beach rapper also speaks about gentrification and racial division on the self-produced track. Staples brings hip-hop swagger to protest music, and the result is a new rallying cry for a generation.
J Cole: Friends (KOD, 2018)
Despite drugs pervading some strands of hip-hop culture, the genre has rallied against their abuse since “White Lines.” On “Friends,” rapper and singer J Cole takes aim at the new vice plaguing modern hip-hop: opioids and the accompanying “Xanax rap” that glorifies it. The KOD album as a whole speaks to modern drug culture, with the title being an acronym for, variously, “Kids On Drugs,” “Kill Our Demons,” and “King OD.” But “Friends” goes beyond simple scolding, with Cole exploring the underlying motivations behind addiction. As the title implies, he’s reaching out directly to friends who can’t stop popping the pills.
Jay Z (feat Gloria Carter): Smile (4:44, 2017)
Appearing on Jay Z’s most personal album, “Smile’ sees the Brooklyn MC getting introspective as he reflects on his troubled past and how it shaped who he is today. The track also serves as a “coming out” of sorts for his mother – Gloria Carter – who appears on a spoken-word outro for the track. “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian,” he reveals. The timely sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” adds to the track’s reflective theme.
The Roots (feat Dice Raw, Greg Porn): Understand (And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, 2014)
The legendary Roots crew examine the hypocrisy of people who ask for God, but “turn around and run” when God comes. Assisted by Dice Raw and Greg Porn, The Roots’ lead vocalist and co-founder Black Thought gets introspective and provokes thought over an organ-heavy beat.
Kendrick Lamar: The Blacker The Berry (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
Kung Fu Kenny channels the spirit and energy of Public Enemy on 2015’s “The Blacker The Berry’. Covering everything from corrupt law enforcement to institutional and systemic racism, K-Dot shows why his name is synonymous with modern-day conscious rap music.
Nas: Daughters (Life Is Good, 2014)
Not since Boston’s Ed OG’s “Be A Father To Your Child” has an MC crafted a song with such a strong message about parental responsibility. Nas reminds his “brothers with daughters” that a little girl’s father is her first relationship with a man. “Daughters” truly reveals the genius of Queens Bridge’s greatest scribe.
Joey Bada$$: Land Of The Free (All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, 2017)
“Can’t change the world until we change ourselves,” proclaims Joey Bada$$ on the opening lines of “Land Of The Free.” Accompanied by a riveting video which includes police firing squads and police officers beneath Ku Klux Klan uniforms, Joey delivers a timely and engaging example of conscious hip-hop.
Rapsody (feat Kendrick Lamar and Lance Skiiiwalker): Power (Laila’s Wisdom, 2017)
In the tradition of Queen Latifah, Isis and Sista Souljah; Rapsody is a female MC who speaks truth to power. On “Power’ she tackles the false notions of power, eloquently illustrating that true power lies in the spirit, unity and love. Those may not sound like popular concepts in modern-day hip-hop, but Rapsody is no stranger to concepts that are non-existent in the genre. With assistance from Kendrick Lamar and Lance Skiiiwalker, Rapsody further cements her position as a superior MC.
J Cole: Be Free (2014)
“Be Free” is an emotional testimony condemning police brutality, penned by rapper and singer J Cole in response to the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown. “Be Free” finds Cole at his most emotional state over the sparse piano-driven track and even samples of a news report about the shooting.
TI: We Will Not (Us Or Else, 2016)
The self-proclaimed “King Of The South” has always possessed the uncanny ability to combine the gritty realities of street life with a positive and many times uplifting message for the listeners who are able to decipher. On 2016’s “We Will Not’, he abandons the tales of street life and delivers a call for unity and a stance against police brutality and self-genocide. TI once again balances intelligence with the bitter realities of the community that he comes from.
Jay Z: Spiritual (2016)
Jay Z is reported to have written “Spiritual” in response to the shootings by law enforcement of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, which occurred within days of each other. For the hook he chants, “I’m just a boy from the hood/Got my hands up in the air in despair/Don’t shoot I just wanna do good.” Artists of Jay’s stature aren’t expected to engage, in social commentary, but “Spiritual,” and his freestyle dedicated to Mike Brown of Ferguson, marked the beginnings of a string of socially conscious songs by the rapper and mogul.
Logic (feat Black Thought, Chuck D, No ID, Big Lenbo): America (Everybody, 2017)
Backed by legends Chuck D, No ID and Black Thought of The Roots, newly-minted hip-hop star Logic comes through and delivers a state-of-the-union address that tackles racism, classism and the hypocrisy of the US political process. For his first foray into politics, the rising MC took no prisoners.
Vic Mensa: 16 Shots (There’s A Lot Going On, 2016)
One of the most powerful tracks off his politically-charged EP There’s Alot Going On, the Chicago wordsmith delivers a scorching commentary based on the police shooting of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald, in 2014. The rapper described the record as “self-defence” and even included dash-cam footage of the shooting in the accompanying music video.
Public Enemy: Mine Again (Man Plans God Laughs, 2015)
With a video shot in Africa that salutes all of the 54 countries that comprise the continent, Public Enemy continues to push the envelope. “Mine Again” is a triple entendre with PE leader Chuck D proclaiming his African origins while simultaneously treading on land mines leftover from previous wars, and passing children toiling in diamond mines.
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