Drake’s much anticipated More Life just dropped, which means more memes, more changing accents, more articles that start like this, and more celebrations of the very brand of success that most hip hop artists today seek to embody. In keeping with the hip hop tradition, some of the most successful rappers currently rubbing industry-shoulders with Drake, like Kanye West, Future, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, are real storytellers of lived experiences, although they have varying levels of skill. While Kendrick and Cole belong to the top, the social and political edge of their work is unmatched in other mainstream hip hop being produced today. Many current hip hop fans and old school loyalists might see in this contrast a subtle sidelining of conscious, real content, and interpret it as a snub of hip hop’s heritage of soulfulness and intense articulation by the new generation.
It’s undeniable that much of what is produced in this vein seems banal in comparison to the complex processes that previous rap legends like The Notorious B.I.G. or LL Cool J brought to the table, like having an unusual lyrical flow or breaking the boundaries of rhythm with sampling. However, dismissing a community of artists who can’t or don’t do this in their music as intruders or “fake” also feels incongruous with the tradition of dynamism, innovation, creativity, and collaboration that makes hip hop what it is. If “keepin’ it real” in rap actually means keeping it looking and sounding the same, then no rapper has ever had a claim to realness and this whole hip hop thing is bogus.
But it’s not bogus, since hip hop’s ‘realness’ doesn’t actually lie in the hands of artists. Being a hip hop artist requires sharing your own interests or experiences in your work, so it’s a given that some artists aren’t going to sound the same. Artistic talent is what makes a story sound good, which is not the same as sounding real. The tropes of hustle, deep introspection, and political and social inequalities are real in rap because they come from the heart, and definitely sound heavier in content and importance when compared to slurred recollections of a one-night stand, or boastful squawks about money, sexual licentiousness, or the hedonistic lifestyle celebrated among young and successful entertainers.
Before the release of 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole dropped two singles that shook rappers and artists alike. “False Prophets” was not only a great track, but almost seemed like a rapper’s manifesto about approaching art and success, with some heartfelt shout-outs. His other song, “Everybody Dies”, was more aggressive and confrontational. It’s very easy to know who exactly are the “Pitchfork”, “chosen by the white man”, “piss-poor”, “amateur eight week”, “fake drug dealer turn tour bus”, “hipster” rappers that he calls out with the angry disappointment of someone who just found out that their divorced middle-aged father has a steady, barely legal girlfriend.
Do these verses attempt an outright condemnation of work made by lyrical ‘have-nots,’ or was Cole just calling their music bad? It’s hard to say, and while I certainly don’t want to think about the fact that Lil Yachty felt fine about showing up to the Grammy Awards like this only because of his heightened success, at the same time, since realness is about staying true to oneself, it doesn’t always have to look or sound good.
Hip hop veterans like to say that the music was always about sharing experiences and being a voice for different people who don’t have a platform to express themselves. It was always a given that everyone should have different things to say. Despite this, some old-timers have voiced concern about hip hop losing the essence of realness that defined and moved it across the world in just one generation.
For those who aren’t quite as convinced of the rosy idea of staying true to oneself is enough to “keep it real,” rest assured that the prevailing truth is that between success and lifestyle lies the room in which the rapper (and the listener) has little choice but to reflect on the authenticity of their own words and actions. Inevitably, they will find both might contain almost none – and this realization is as real as it gets.