Ever since his initial brush with fame, Drake has been a lightning rod. His impact on hip-hop culture overall cannot be understated, but within the guise of the art-form that is rap, he stands as the fissure between old-school “hip-hop head” values and new-age pop-culture modernism.
I’m 29 years old. My generation represents the first to come of age in a climate in which success in rap is dictated not solely based on individual talent and lyrics, but more of a wholesale approach to capitalizing on cultural trends and producing music that above all else is entertaining. The older age groups will never let go of their Pacs, Biggies, Scarfaces, Goodie Mobs and Leaders of the New School; and the younger age groups are enveloped by the Drakes, Big Seans, Rich Homie Quans, Young Thugs and Futures. Never the twain shall meet. Yet ever so often, an artist can come along who gets it. An artist who is so talented, he/she has an awareness about themselves in relation to the pulse of the culture that allows them to be relevant across generations of varying age groups. Drake is one such artist.
If you’re a hip-hop kid that hails from a generation prior to mine, Drake may not appeal to your musical sensibilities. Nevertheless, to deny his lyrical prowess would serve as an affront to the very attribute that got you interested in the music in the first place. You won’t do that, so you have no choice but to respect him. If you’re a hip-hop/pop kid who was born in the 90s, chances are highly likely that you vibe with Drake no matter what. This is the cultural relevancy that his natural abilities have afforded him. He’s a unique specimen unto himself, and it is why, in my opinion, he is a transcendent artist.
When he speaks, people listen. His feature verses usually outshine the bars of the primary artist, as is the case with the recent “100”, in which he assist The Game on an audio opus that stands to let everyone know why both The Game and Drake shouldn’t be questioned when it comes to their respective movements. Drake’s verse in particular serves much more than it would suggest on the surface, offering up subtle commentaries on a few values and false-truths that have controlled the way hip-hop behaves since its inception.
“I would have so many friends if I didn’t have money, respect and accomplishments.”
Value: Learn to keep a small circle and be content with it. Biggie alluded to it with “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”. In hip-hop (as well as in business), there is a belief that having too many friends and people that depend on you is directly correlated to untapped potential and a lack of success. “Jealous Ones Envy” and keeping your friends close and your enemies closer are common tropes that have reverberated throughout the annals of hip-hop success ever since there was such a thing as success in hip-hop. Being forthright and courageous enough to accept the fact that the more successful you become, the less friends you’ll have and that people you thought were friends turned out to be nothing more than mere acquaintances, is a quality that any artist aspiring to make it to the elite room must come to terms with. Some are uncomfortable with this notion. Some want to be well-liked. They aren’t okay with burning bridges. They’re preoccupied with keeping relations peaceful and diplomatic. In hip-hop, you can spot these people from a mile away and they tend to have many monikers, chiefly among them broke, independent, underground, and personal favorite, conscious.
“I would have so many friends if I held back the truth and I just gave out compliments.”
Value: Keep it 100. Sure, it’s the song’s namesake, but it speaks to the very nature of what tends to unjustly ruin friendships and working relationships both in business and in music. Somewhere along the way, the ability to accept constructive criticism, candor and honesty as it pertains to one’s work or craft was lost. It must have been the emergence of social media and the incremental influx of the most powerful “yes man” in the history of mankind, Instagram. Whatever the cause, artists have become increasingly ornery when it comes to having their work critiqued, thereby creating a culture of don’t ask, don’t tell within the industry when it comes to bad music and a bad product. Wale went off the handle and resorted to threats when he felt slighted by Complex, and this represents just one example of why hip-hop has opted to embrace the concept of complete inclusiveness when it comes to its deliverables as opposed to honoring the craft and keeping to only releasing quality. Thankfully, it appears as though Drake continues to uphold the mantle of honesty, even if it means rubbing people the wrong way along the process.
“I would have all of yo’ fans if I didn’t go pop and I stayed on some conscious shit.”
False truth #1: Conscious rap is the only pure form of rap there is. This is a fallacy that speaks directly to rap’s generational divide. There is an accepted belief among the older generations – the generations whose perception of rap purity is rooted in NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim, Nas and Big Daddy Kane – that only rap consisting of conscious content can be considered actual rap music. They scoff at the notion that rap music that is predicated on popular concepts, materialism and the individual self can be interpreted as anything other than superficiality and an adherence to things that in the grand scheme of things don’t matter. Of course, I don’t blame them for feeling this way. We are all products of the times in which we come of age. But to cling to the idea that rap has to be conscious in order to stay true to the craft does a disservice to the idea that rap has always stood as a countermeasure to antiquated sociopolitical ideals. It’s supposed to move the meter, advance the culture and be the agent of change that helps to progress society. If we want to keep rap in the late 80s and early 90s, then we might as well bring back “Reagan-nomics” and the crack epidemic (and this is coming from someone who loathes the majority of the music that is popular and gets the lion’s share of today’s radio play).
False truth #2: Conscious content equates to skill. I respect Kendrick Lamar. I’m not necessarily a fan, but I do hold the fact that he is comfortable carving a lane for himself as a new-age truth teller in some regard. Having said that, I never quite understood the immense prominence that he rose to at the onset of the release of his debut album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”. His fanbase rose to unparalleled heights, and as far as I could tell, from a talent perspective, he was no more a rapping savant than some of his lyrical contemporaries, namely J. Cole, Drake or Jay Electronica (even though the latter seems incapable of sitting his ass down to complete and release an actual album). Some of the concepts for his music were unique in their own right, but certainly not enough to bring him the unrelenting acclaim that he seemed to have garnered for himself. Musicologists appear to have unanimously declared him the best of his generation, and when you delve into why this is the general sentiment, the common denominator for said opinion usually centers on Kendrick’s perception as the conscious rapper in his class.
For whatever reason, conscious rap seems to have been equated to the skill of an artist. The prevailing perception in 2015 hip-hop culture is such that if you’re more conscious with your content, it also means you’re a better rapper overall. The hardcore fanbase within rap has grown increasingly resentful towards the pop constituency of rap music, and in retaliation have voiced their frustrations towards pop-culture rap by ordaining conscious rappers as not only more socially conscious and true to what rap should be, but more skilled in the art of the craft itself. It’s a fallacy that has perpetuated the notion that Kendrick Lamar is better than Drake simply because Kendrick is conscious and Drake is pop; and it doesn’t just boil down to a Kendrick vs. Drake debate, but any similar debate between an artist who is of a conscious ilk and one who is more mass-appealing. Sometimes the notion is valid. But more often than not, it serves as an irrational attack on pop rap music and exposes the hardcore fanbase for the resentment that they harbor for any rapper who isn’t on their sociopolitical soapbox. They need to get over it.
Jay Z once brilliantly said, “Cause you don’t understand him it don’t mean that he nice/ It just mean you don’t understand all the bullshit that he writes.” This is what he was talking about. We’ve chosen to confuse conscious content for skill, and thankfully, it’s a false-truth that Drake is aware of and has opted to address yet not entertain. Personal preference does play a role in this dynamic, but don’t get it twisted; electing to be a conscious rapper does not mean that the conscious rapper is more skilled than the pop rapper. It just means that YOU prefer conscious rap. Drake is just as lyrically potent and clever as Kendrick, and the fact that he continues to appeal to a wide audience must give the hardcore rap fanbase some serious discomfort.
I don’t want to come off as a Kendrick hater or suggest that it should be a forgone conclusion that Drake is better than him; but the conversation needs to be kept in its proper perspective. Have a debate about the merit of the artists themselves. Rash generalizations are part of what keeps hip-hop from receiving the large-scale critical acclaim that it rightfully deserves, and when it comes down to two artists who are virtual equals, the fact that one is conscious and the other is not isn’t a strong enough case for one guy over the other. It’s just a case for your personal preference in music, and this is coming from someone who does in fact appreciate a break from the pop monotony with a little dose of conscious righteousness rather often.
What Drake has done for hip-hop shouldn’t be interpreted as anything but healthy for the culture. His rare combination of ability, critical acclaim and crossover interest has placed him in the unique position to serve as a lightning rod for an analysis on the relative merit of various long-held genre values. In just one guest feature, he’s managed to call fans and contemporaries alike to the carpet for their reluctance to embrace the difficulties of striving for success and clinging to fallacies that have no real merit when examined objectively. Let’s just hope that more music – and not solely from Drake – that prompts us to question “why” can be had on a mainstream level.
Are there any songs that you like that also serve to question some of the values and belief-sets that revolve around hip-hop music? Do you believe that conscious content equates to skill? Should a conscious rapper be considered more valuable to the craft and culture than one who is pop and mainstream-oriented? Be my guest and let me know how crazy I am below!
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.