Part 1 is here
Nas is indisputably one of the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic, as hip hop as rappers go. From what is widely considered one of, if not the best rap album ever, the gritty, streetwise Illmatic, up to the grown-man, nuanced, elegant hip hop on Life is Good, his discography is a play-by-play of the evolution of the genre through the eyes of one of its finest.
When he declared, then, that his beloved form of expression was “dead” halfway through his career on Hip Hop is Dead, then, the outburst of conversation was understandable. Fast forward 10 years, and Nas declares himself a proper fan of Future, the divisive rapper scores of hip hop heads declared as antithetical to “real hip hop.” He’d go on to explain his history with the genre on the watershed DJ Khaled track, Hip Hop with Scarface.
This dichotomy might seem contradictory to some, but to me, it’s where the spectacularly complex appeal of hip hop lay. There was a voice for every listener, and a listener for every voice. I was able to thus appreciate music across eras and stylistic evolution, and I grew to connect the dots linking a range of rappers.
I heard reflections of Tupac in Kendrick, Nas in J. Cole, Common in Kanye. But I also witnessed artists who’d carve out their own distinct places in hip-hop – Future, Mac Miller, Vince Staples, Childish Gambino, Young Thug and Chance the Rapper. The diversity of thought and sound in each of these musicians is perhaps lost on those ignorant to the genre’s nuances, but I had found a genre with an album for every mood, an artist for every day.
The street tales of Nas and Jay-Z drew me in with their vividness, with evocative descriptions of neighborhoods and lives completely foreign to me. Southern rappers such as T.I. offered another perspective towards the life of someone often, by their own admission, caught on the wrong side of the law. At times, it almost felt voyeuristic, but I was always educating myself about their circumstances – ghettoization, Reaganomics, racist power structures and police brutality. They led me to discover parallels between racial prejudice in America and casteist and communal politics in India.
It might be surprising to many, I attribute a significant base of my sociopolitcal awareness to trying to understand the contexts of the music I was listening to and its reflections in the contexts I was more familiar with. They were often revelatory, and as I dug deeper, I explored powerful voices such as The Roots, Black Star, Pharaohe Monch, and Killer Mike, who furthered my drive to understand the things they rapped about with such incisiveness.
But I was still a teenager – I had very adolescent emotions, and music was my go-to outlet for solace, sometimes for answers. Fortunately, by the time I was exposed to it, hip hop had begun embracing its sensitive side, thanks to Kid Cudi, Kanye, and yes, sometimes even Drake. Whether they be angst, heartbreak, or even anxiety and depression, I found a straightforwardness towards them in hip-hop that many other genres sidestepped.
Mac Miller’s Macadelic, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and Faces were some of my favourite albums from that time because of the unabashedly unsure, and complicated way Mac rapped about the addictions, insecurities and weirdness he was plagued by. I couldn’t relate to his exact situations, but they felt similar; genuine.
Cudi and Childish Gambino helped me through my bitter lonely teen phase with their own candid confessions of the same feelings – they might’ve often come off as immature, but to someone who desperately needed a sense of belonging in that time, they were kindred spirits.
So I grew; learning, failing, learning some more, all the while accruing a select, and colourful cross-section of rappers whose music I loved and always looked out for. As I shed my inhibitions and childish notions of ‘real’ hip hop, I also began to develop a taste for music that was just fun – bangers. Chance, Rick Ross, Future, and Young Thug quickly filled those gaps, and I found I had times where I just wanted to turn up. Depriving myself of these joys of the genre felt increasingly pointless.
Through all of this, I also grew to be acutely aware of the language employed in hip-hop. I learnt only on of the painful history and powerful reclamation of the n-word; it reminds me of the Dalit identity in India. Colloquialisms littered throughout hip-hop were finding its way into pop culture, and I tried to be consciously aware of their usage. It helped me understand just how much White America owed to the section of the population it had oppressed for so long, and discover how language, often used as a tool of the elitist classes, could be subverted. It contributed immensely to my love affair with writing too, and my cherished belief that words were only as good as the messages they conveyed.
It’s now been several years since I first started listening to hip-hop, and I’m as fascinated and enamored by it as I ever was. Listening to a song like 1 Train fills me with an inexplicable joy – pure lyrical acrobatics over an amazing beat, by a range of rappers each with their own distinctive styles. It’s why I listen to Joey Bada$$, and I listen to Lil Uzi Vert. I listen to Vince Staples, and I listen to A$AP Rocky. I listen to Big Boi, and I listen to Run the Jewels. I listen to Black Milk, and I listen to Big Sean. I love all of their music. I have never had to choose, and I never intend to.
I do intend to keep learning about hip-hop, and the environment it draws upon, and playing YG’s Fuck Donald Trump as loudly as I can. Hip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the USA, and for this young adult across the world in India, its gospel is one I will never stop preaching.