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9 activist albums well worth another listen

Raheem Veal

 // Jul 13, 2016

Kevin Winter // Getty Images

The entire nation, the black community in particular, has been swept by overwhelming grief over recent instances of injustice and police brutality. More black bodies have been dehumanized. Our thoughts have been stained by the blood of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Perhaps the most disturbing thought is that these violent, inhumane injustices have become normalized.

Still, in the face of adversity art is one of our greatest assets. The solidarity found in music has long been a staple of black culture, from Negro spirituals to modern-day hip-hop. That said, here are just a few albums that provide positivity and inspiration. You might not have thought they were activism records upon first listen, but let's look again.

1. Me Against the World, 2Pac

Tupac Shakur was a profound leader and prolific hip-hop artist, whose infectious passion will inspire generations to come. It’s scary to think that his time on Earth only lasted 25 years. Pac was a complex individual, at times struggling to balance his life as a poetic scholar and the “Thug Life” tatted across his abdomen.

Death Row Records capitalized on the controversy surrounding his life with the double-album All Eyez on Me. Although the diamond-selling record was his most commercially successful, Me Against the World displays Pac at the peak of his powers. His storytelling was impeccable, his writing genuine, and the music polished. He addresses strained community-police relations and the resulting distrust for the justice system. In the title track, he speaks out against authority figures who “punish the people that’s askin’ questions.” He challenges the notion that controlling violent crime is more important than dismantling the corrupt institutions that perpetuate it. Me Against the World encapsulates black pain, and how it manifests itself in the hood.

2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is undoubtedly Kanye West’s magnum opus. This sonic masterpiece is both heavily layered and easily listenable. He uses Auto-Tune and balances rapping with singing much more efficiently than on 808s & Heartbreak. This is Yeezy at the top of his game. Although one of the central themes is heartbreak, this album is West’s bold statement: He refuses to play along anymore. He speaks on elitism within the industry and the racial injustice that goes on behind closed doors.

An underlying theme of the project is the importance of art, especially to black people. Art provides mediums for expression and self-discovery. In the Raekwon-assisted “Gorgeous,” Yeezy reminds us that music is his canvas: “Is hop just a euphemism for a new religion? The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing … Malcolm West got the whole nation standing at attention.”

3. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye

The legendary Marvin Gaye had some of the most iconic, smooth vocals ever recorded. With the Vietnam War and racial injustice causing more turmoil in this country, Marvin took a break from "Sexual Healing" to disseminate positivity and peace through his music. This move was considered risky, considering he was one of the first black artists to address social issues in his music.

Today, we see icons such as Beyoncé, with her massively impactful and successful Lemonade, continuing this legacy. With Gaye, an artist who had built a loyal fan base on making intimate, mood-setting music had a new focus. It paid off with success across the board. In the title track, Marvin pleads with police armed with dogs, nightsticks and water hoses, “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality.”

4. Untitled, Nas

When socially conscious, great lyricists are discussed, the first name mentioned is often wordsmith Nasir Jones. The Queens native has built an impressive catalogue, highlighted by what is universally regarded as hip-hop’s greatest treasure: Illmatic. Nas has spawned so many great projects that Untitled is often overlooked. This hidden gem was made to comfort and speak to a black community wounded by oppression. Originally titled The Nggr Album, this record neglects radio hits even more than its predecessors. However, as usual, the lyrical content is potent.

Nas expertly tackles police brutality and injustice. He draws parallels between mass incarceration and slavery with subtle nuances in songs such as “Slave and The Master.” Most importantly, Escobar asks what we’ve all been wondering, “Can a n*a just breathe?”

5. The Score , Fugees

With their second studio album, the Fugees produced a landmark project for hip-hop. They integrated elements of gospel and reggae to create something innovative and refreshing. Wyclef Jean, influenced by his Haitian roots, was both the architect behind the sound and the Afrocentric group’s leader. However, New Jersey native Lauryn Hill is considered the group’s most talented vocalist and lyricist. With Pras Michel also ripping the mic, Fugees were a trio to be reckoned with.

_The Score _contains subject matter and skits that challenge the intentions of inner city police. It focuses on the notion that officers are more concerned with enforcing control than maintaining peace. Lauryn candidly addresses racial profiling on “The Beast,” rapping “high class get bypassed while my a** gets harassed.”

6. Black on Both Sides, Mos Def

Mos Def is one of the most underrated technical rappers of his generation. This perennial top 15 rap album of all time features commentary on life in the hood. The Brooklyn MC truly embodies the New York sound, as well as the tradition of great storytelling. This album boasts great production and venomous lyricism. Mos Def portrays himself primarily as an observer of the turmoil going on around him. The inner city violence around him is a direct result of institutional forces working against black people, and he tells it like it is.

This album features one of the most classic hip-hop beats ever produced: Mathematics. Rapping in double-time on this track, Mos Def criticizes America for its perpetuation of the prison industry. In one haunting line, he states that as a black man in this country it can be “dangerous to dream.”

7. Black Radio, Robert Glasper Experiment

Robert Glasper is the ultimate maestro in this unique project. The jazz pianist and producer expertly combines nearly every element of black music. He brings neo soul legend Erykah Badu, smooth vocalist Musiq Soulchild and skilled lyricist Lupe Fiasco along for the journey. The instrumentation is crisp and the album cohesive. Glasper achieves his vision for displaying originality while paying homage to influential black artists.

This album is not exclusively about racial justice like most others on this list, but is dripping with blackness. Songs such as “Afro Blue” speak on the obstacles of growing up and engaging in relationships wearing the scars of oppression. In “Always Shine,” Lupe is accompanied by a piano as he encourages perseverance in spite of racial oppression. As the music fades out, among his last words are, “To the oppressors, I leave a war.”

8. To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar

After producing a modern-day classic in Good Kid Maad City, Kendrick Lamar was expected to deliver a similar-sounding project for the highly anticipated follow-up. The Compton native had other plans. The resulting product was the most critically acclaimed hip-hop album since 2000 (and President Obama’s favorite album of 2015). TPAB is heavy in both subject matter and instrumentation. It sounds as though Lamar exclusively listened to jazz, blues and funk for inspiration, but it works. This album is dense and not easily listenable, but undeniably impressive as a body of art. GKMC was like a well-directed movie about life in the hood, but this listens more like an anthology on the black experience.

Kendrick raps about institutional racism, depression, the exploitation of black bodies and other resonant subjects. This is a statement from an artist finding himself and embracing his blackness. The uncommon theme of colorism in “Complexion” is well executed and empowering. “Alright” became a unifying anthem of positivity, while “Blacker the Berry” channeled the anger and frustration felt by many. Kendrick’s album reignited the trend of black artists openly speaking out against racial injustice in their music.

9. Black Messiah, D'Angelo and the Vanguard

This album is the long-awaited follow-up to D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed Voodoo. Released in 2014, this album ended a 14-year hiatus from the R&B superstar. Black Messiah is an album that thrives on its silky vibes as well as D’Angelo’s impressive vocals. It has been praised for its versatility, using classic-sounding hip-hop beats and traditional R&B and soul production.

This album discusses the perils of being black in a nation founded on violence and discrimination. On "1000 Deaths," there is a speech excerpt addressing Christianity. It refutes the idea that Jesus was white and openly addresses the history of contradictions between the words and actions of Americans who consider themselves Christians.

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