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Conscious rap looks to make a comeback

By Tom Teixeira
On February 1, 2012

Turn on your favorite hip-hop radio station this morning and you are likely to hear loud, obnoxious beats teamed with simplistic lyrics about two rich men who "ball so hard." You might get a Canadian singing about his pride in some girl or if you're really lucky, you might catch a hook made from the rapid repetition of the word "ass." If you were to observe America's hip-hop scene based on the Billboard Top 10, you might diagnose the beast with heart failure. However, a deeper inspection of hip-hop in 2012 will show that rap isn't only about Maybachs, money and weed.

Hip-Hop was born from the hearts and minds of people like Gil Scott Heron, Heavy D, KRS-One, NWA and Public Enemy. These MCs rapped hard and with purpose. Their efforts brought hip-hop from bus stops and local clubs to stadiums and recording studios. In the 90's, the likes of Tupac, Nas, Lauren Hill, Common, Mos Def and Oukast continued the tradition. What is the correlation between these artists you might ask? Where is Jay-Z? Biggie? Wayne? The short answer is that they don't belong on this list. This list is reserved for conscious rappers. Whether they spoke on black pride, economic distress, racial inequality, gender roles or family struggles, these artists rapped to bring political and social problems to light with the belief that through music, they might be solved.

Though not popular as it once was, conscious rap seems to be making a comeback and 2012 could serves as launch-date for the sub-genre's resurrection into mainstream. While the last generation of up-and-coming rappers, people like Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, and Big Sean, largely followed the examples of their predecessors by rapping about money, women and swag, the next group up might break the mold. Inspired by Tupac's bluesy "Keep Ya Head Up" or Outkast's honest, southern ballad "Da Art of Storytellin,'" a few promising artists could catapult conscious rap back into relevancy.

We must however, remain cautiously optimistic. We have seen artists try to do this before. Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, who still dabble in the conscious rap genre, stayed true to their intellectual sides in their early work before being crushed by the pressures of the record industry.

Two of the future's biggest artists, like Lupe in 2006 and Kanye in 2004, look to build upon underground success with major label releases. Compton, Calif. rapper Kendrick Lamar and Mississippi native Big KRIT are two artists who received critical recognition and praise in 2011 for their respective independent albums, "Section.80" and "Return of 4Eva." Their respective 2012 studio debuts, "Good Kid in a Mad City" and "Live From the Underground," have the potential to bring conscious rap back into the realm of popular music, a combination lacking since Lupe Fiasco's 2006 classic "Food & Liquor."

Lamar, who is 24, is primarily concerned with providing listeners with the abstract concept of what it means to be "a product of the late 80's." "Section.80" touches on common topics like race, gender, and poverty, but also jumps into more complex issues. Many tracks comment on the evils, values, dreams, hypocrisies and hopes of present society as Lamar sees. Lamar's best tracks include "Hiiipower," "Keisha's Song," "Kush and Corinthians," "F*ck Your Ethnicity," and "No Make-Up."

Big KRIT is in many ways, a different breed even than Kendrick Lamar. A Meridan, Mississippi rapper and producer, KRIT's music is genuinely Southern and always packs soulful sounds and themes. KRIT often questions modern religion, politics, and his favorite and most abstract topic, morality.

In music and lyrics, he resembles the great Southern duo Outkast and shares their two greatest assets. KRIT possesses the unique ability to criticize and even scorn, while still communicating a great feeling of compassion for people. His ability to tell stories through not only song, but through an entire album, makes both of his tapes not only unique, but deeply meaningful.

Some of KRIT's best tracks include "2000 & Beyond," "They Got US," "Children of the World," "Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism," and "The Vent."

Lamar and KRIT, though introduced here, aren't the only two young rappers aspiring toward mainstream success through conscious rapping. J. Cole and XV, though less focused on typically ‘conscious' topics, possess the ability to produce explosive music. XV's "Pictures On My Wall" tells the tale of a young boy who survives frequent bouts of domestic violence through the therapeutic escape that is music. J.Cole's parenthood drama, "Lost Ones" can attest to his potential to move toward the conscious faction of rap.

The year 2012 could be a big one for conscious rap as some of hip-hop's coveted rookies start to produce widely distributed albums. Big KRIT, Kenderick Lamar, and XV all aim for success with major label debuts that may cement their presence among Phonte, Saigon, Mos Def, Big Boi, Common, and Lupe Fiasco on the now re-growing conscious rap front. But as with all young artists, two questions remain: will they fail or triumph, and if they triumph, will they sell out or will they stay true to their roots?


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