For those of you who listen to a healthy dose of non-hip hop:
Think of all the lyrical passages from contemporary music that have significantly affected you, or held great meaning for you. Maybe not even ones that you could "relate" to per se, but ones that were inherently beautiful in their construction.
How many of these are by a hiphop artist?
I must say, that--for me--when I think of meaningful lyrical passages, I recall only a handful of quotes from hiphop songs; and I've listened to quite a lot over the years.
Obviously, it should not be like this.
Yes, I know that a lot of hiphop is intended to be party music, or music to dance to, and thus the lyrical content is not to be of great depth.
And, I know that there's an unfortunately large mass of commercial rap that is devoid of this depth, and which casts an unfriendly light upon the rest of the art/culture.
But, I'm speaking of underground hiphop too, of course, and I've listened to my fair share.
I've read a few articles recently about the importance of hiphop in Black culture, and American urban culture in general. Most people agree hiphop is/can be the voice of the streets: a form of expression to disseminate typically ignored messages to the public, in hopes of effecting change. Aside from that, it has the same capacities for self-expression as any other artform. All in all, hiphop can carry a powerful message...
People who praise hiphop in the aforementioned manner are writing a pretty big check for hiphop to make good on; and, from listening to a majority of hiphop today (hell, I'll say a majority of underground hiphop, today), I'd say this check is being returned, marked "insufficient funds."
I think there are artists out there who can supply this sort of meaningful lyricism of which I speak. But over all, I'd say that a majority of rappers are more concerned with form rather than content. Shoot, form is what most of them rap about all the time. I know battling is an important facet of hiphop culture, but rapping about your rapping is ridiculous and...well..boring. Every time I hear an MC praise his own rhyming skills nowadays, it conveys to me such an offputting arrogance, like Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs."
A lot of rappers refer to themselves as poets, but I suspect the only poetic quality they have is rhyming and/or rythym. In the world of written poetry and literature there are important contemporary authors that are delivering the same messages hiphop is purported to carry (like Ishmael Reed, for one), but I don't see rappers coming anywhere near them in terms of eloquence.
Why is that?
Everyday, hiphop is being degraded as an artform. An accurate comparison can be made to contemporary popular country music. Listen to the old folk country artists like Woody Guthrie--those songs had messages. They were poignant distillations on a variety of social issues, among other topics. And now all one hears is "Achey Brakey Heart" (OK, that's a little old by now, but you get my point.)
I don't mean to sound as if I feel hiphop is my artform...as if I'm watching my artform disintegrate. As white and upper-middle class, I'm only an enthusiast, a listener of hiphop--but it is not my music, per se. I've endured little hardship and struggle, which is a significant element of urban culture (i.e. the source of hiphop culture). But I suppose I can hypothesize about the music's shortcomings.
(Sorry, I'm starting to sound like one of those dreadful hiphop purists.)
I think a lot of underground artists could generate the type of lyrical content I and many others desire, if only they invested the time and effort. And I don't mean that they need to generate highbrow lyrics to appeal to intellectuals; viscerally impactful messages can come in easily understandable wording. Look at Achebe's "Things Fall Apart": its prose is structurally simplistic, as is its vocab (likely because of a conscious effort on the part of Achebe), but it contains so much meaning.
I don't mean to get highbrow about hiphop. Obivously, one can never get highbrow about popular music as long as a Miles Davis album costs as much as one by the Insane Clown Posse. I'm only requesting that listeners have higher standards. Being that there are some educated people on this board, I assume some of you must agree.
To conclude, I've thought of a few guidelines I would love to see rappers implement:
1) Try not to rap about rap.
2) Don't tell me that you make meaningful music--just make it.
3) Don't waste time insulting other MCs.
4) Please don't rhyme for the sake of rhyming.
5) Curb the misogyny--does it serve a purpose?
6) Only evoke profanity when the content warrants it (I don't know how many times I've heard 'shit' used simply because it's easy to rhyme).
The list could go on, but I'm sure you get my drift.
But to be honest, I don't think there will ever be a significant change in the content of hiphop, because the primary consumers are children/teenagers. And they sure aren't demanding more from these artists. But since they are the ones buying, I don't think these MCs care about the minority of demanding fans--for the most part, they can afford to lose a few.
P.S. I had a dream the other night--I'm not kidding about this. I went to an underground show and the opening act came out on stage--it was a large, white bunny. And he repeated the following lines:
Silly rabbit, hiphop is for kids."