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Hip-hop is trying to save us

Morgan McDaniel

 // Jul 31, 2016

Asmar Bouie // REVOLT

You know that musical category that has historically romanticized gang violence and drug dealing? The artistic culture that has continuously objectified women and encouraged materialism? The movement that has produced artists such as Kreayshawn, Chingy and Vanilla Ice? Yes, that one. It's finally here to save us, from ourselves.

Since an epic rap duo from Atlanta featuring Big Boi and Andre 3000 (OutKast) revived the declining influential genre during the early 2000s, hip-hop has continued its evolution as a metaphysical art form of freedom and positivity. From Kanye West's militaristic classic "Jesus Walks" to Kendrick Lamar's electric, soulful "Alright," the persistent influence of ideas predicated on projecting unadulterated realness, Blackness, and alacrity has grown to an all-time high. And it may be just what we need. Let's call it savior rap (not to be confused with gospel rap).

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Of course, this recent wave of positivity isn't exactly new. Many hip-hop artists have devoted their craft to advancing uplifting narratives such as love of oneself, unity and sprightliness. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Roots frequently fused soulful melodies with thought-provoking lyrics. Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube and KR-S One regularly used their voices to shed light on social injustices and influence togetherness within the Black community. Rawkus Records sought to affirm consciousness with artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli (formerly known together as Black Star), Pharaoh Monch and Big L.

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But there's something different about this modern redux of feel-good conscious rap. Apart from the contemporary explorative sounds, this latest iteration of alternative hip-hop is as commercially successful as it has ever been. For better or worse, people are buying into this feel-good, humble rap, now more than ever. And it's not showing any signs of letting up.

According to Billboard, in 2015 Dreamville's J. Cole became the hip-hop industry's highest paid rapper of the year, garnering $8.8 million in total revenue, easily surpassing Drake. What's more, is that of the $8.8 million, a whopping $5.5 million came as a result of touring. That means, instead of just purchasing (or streaming) his latest studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, people are showing up to see him perform live. A LOT. It's an impressive feat considering that his now double-platinum album featured no other artists. Moreover, the central theme isn't one of materialism or false bravado. It's a humble exploration of Jermaine Cole's maturation from an adolescent to a thriving rap artist. For as high as Rawkus was and intended to be, it was never this successful.

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But it's not just J. Cole that's advancing narratives of humility and self-reflection. Kendrick Lamar, fresh off setting the world on fire with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, reclaimed the throne with his critically acclaimed classic, To Pimp A Butterfly. The album exists as a thoughtful conversation with his idol 2Pac, in which Kendrick beautifully catalogs the personal struggles of his newfound success.

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Then there was Big K.R.I.T.'s mixtape It's Better This Way; a palatable follow-up to his second studio album Cadillactica, that explores the depths of Southern culture and personal perseverance. There's also Logic's sophomore album, The Incredible True Story, and most recently, Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book.

Over the span of two years, these artists have experienced a considerable amount of financial and critical success. They've sold out shows. Their albums have been purchased, streamed and illegally downloaded by the masses. And the narratives to each of their respective projects are very similar: Love yourself, chase your dreams, eliminate negative energy, cherish your life and have fun.

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If they weren't rapping verses to syncopated beats and harmonious tunes, one could easily mistake the material espoused for that of a Tony Robbins self-help conference.

While it may be easy to dismiss these accounts as sheer entertainment, these artists aren't only spitting bars for merchandising purposes. The lyrical content throughout their music is regularly adopted in their everyday lives. Despite his overwhelming success and growing popularity, Lamar remains a coy man from Compton. He refrains from drugs, limits his consumption of alcohol, is in a committed relationship with his high school sweetheart and resides in a modest Eastvale, Los Angeles home.

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Last year J. Cole married his longtime girlfriend in a quiet, private ceremony. Logic, born Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, visited fans in their homes to conduct personal listening sessions for his upcoming album. Chance is steady trying to turn his baby mama to his fiancée and frequently praises her publicly as a remarkable mother.

There are no bottles to pop, strippers to make it rain on or shiny chains to flaunt. Just young men, rapping about the thoughtful, unostentatious lifestyles that they live every day. They understand their increased platform and utilize it to address societal issues.

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Of course, there will be rappers who continue to spew the cliched nonsense that dominates radio waves. There is still rachetness to be had and twerk videos to be made. College students still need trap music for a lit house party.

But as long as these thoughtful MCs remain at the forefront of the industry, hip-hop will be in capable hands for years to come. And that may be just enough to save us.

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