2011 had a lot to offer: Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne,” Drake’s “Take Care,” Lupe’s “Lasers,” Wale’s “Ambition,” and countless other ‘underdogs’ gave fans a lot for their anxious ears to process. With the overflow of materialism in hip-hop, it’s proven difficult to find true social and racial commentary in the genre; artists would rather rap about the spoils of their artistic endeavors than about modern problems and current events. Do not be mistaken, however: the think tank of creativity has not lessened in value or insight in 2011, for there has still been true and experiential commentary on race and color by artists. Three songs: Hold You Down, by Childish Gambino, Murder To Excellence by Kanye West and Jay-Z and All Black Everything by Lupe Fiasco discuss current events, experiences, and strong views on race in the 21st century, and prove hip-hop still has the meaningful purpose and powerful voice it’s always had.
Childish Gambino: writer, comedian, actor turned rapper. Disregarding Gambino’s ability to rhyme and play with the English language, his story is fresh and widely unheard of in hip-hop: he moved out of the hood as a child, had a father, and attended New York University. Gambino is fighting a double edged sword: he feels alienated from black culture because of his past and discriminated against because of the color of his skin. In Hold You Down, he explains how his background creates an estrangement from his roots: “he said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad/I think that’s kind of sad, especially because a lot of black kids think they should agree with that.” Society strikes him with the other edge as well; as a black man he feels discriminated against, “subtle racism, it’s hard to pin it because you would only understand if you were me for just a minute,” (Hold You Down). Gambino knows his past isn’t the tell-tale hip-hop story, but wants to maintain his black identity anyway. This message runs through the major vein of the entire album: in Outside, the first track on “Camp,” Childish passionately says, “They talking hood shit and I ain’t know what that was about/Cause hood shit and black shit is super different…Mom and Dad wouldn’t listen/They left the Bronx so I wouldn’t be that.” Hold You Down offers a five minute synopsis, a taste test of exactly what Childish Gambino struggles with; he surely isn’t from the hood, he is a black man, and he too is held down by racism. His angle is fresh and pure, and means something to the culture of 2011.
Murder to Excellence is a welcomed break from the electronically modern mood of “Watch the Throne;” the twangy guitar that’s a pluck away from being out of tune under the tribal calls of distant voices, accented by the rolling crescendo of drums summarizes the theme of the track: murder. On October 17th, 2010 Danroy Henry, a Pace University football player was shot and killed by police officers after fleeing a “wild melee outside a Westchester bar,” (NYdailynews.com). The police insisted that they only fired at him after he hit two cops; witnesses have said different. In Murder To Excellence, Jay-Z opens his verse with “this is to the memory of Danroy Henry, too much enemy fire to catch a friendly.” Enemy fire and friendly fire are opposites, black and white, but both deadly. Jay-Z doesn’t believe the murder of the 20 year old was a mistake: “too much enemy fire,” suggests the police and Henry were enemies; race and color played integral roles in the death of the young man, according to Jay-Z. This then leads to the theme of the track: “the paper read murder, black-on-black murder,” (Murder To Excellence). Jay-Z uses the murder of Henry to epitomize the uselessness of black-on-black murder in the U.S. today; there is enough racial violence as it is, killing each other isn’t helping anyone. Kanye pushes this even further, offering a bewildering statistic from 2008: “Is it genocide?/…/It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from/I feel the pain in my city wherever I go/314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago,” (Murder To Excellence). Kanye’s own city had a higher death rate than soldiers abroad in a hostile environment; his streets aren’t safe, and it causes him to ask the question: is it a genocide? It pains both of the artists to even have the material to write such a song, but what else can they do? Racial violence isn’t a dead institution, and Kanye and Jay-Z see it affecting people they know and love on a daily basis. The money and fame haven’t removed them from the problem, but now they can see it from the outside after living within it. Murder To Excellence in its most basic form, is a sorrowful and compelling ode to the ones who have been lost, and a plea to lose no more.
All Black Everything is a world of opposites; a dream of Lupe’s in which every racial evil inversely occurs with the absence of race, and therefore has a favorable outcome for all: employment instead of slavery, Ahmadinejad winning the Mandela Peace Prize, and a constitution written by W.E.B. Du Bois. All Black Everything implies the absence of any color, a world with no differentiation based on race; the effects are drastic: “cause racism has no context/…/Everybody rappin like crack never happened/Crips never occurred no bloods to attack them/matter of fact no hood to attack in/Somalia is a great place to relax in/…/the rat pack was a cool group of black men,” (All Black Everything). Lupe Fiasco is known to push the political boundaries, sometimes even a bit too far; All Black Everything, however, is a constructive song that reflects on the wrongdoings of humanity and offers hope for the future: “Uh, and I know it’s just a fantasy/I cordially invite you to ask why can’t it be?/Now we can do nothing bout the past/But we can do something about the future that we have.” Take a lesson from the past and act on it in the present.
Childish Gambino, Jay-Z and Kanye West, and Lupe Fiasco created art that reflects their environment and thoughts on race; they represent the true voice of hip-hop, and one that matters for the legacy of the year 2011.
Rapgenius.com, Rap Genius: “Hold You Down,” “Murder To Excellence,” “All Black Everything.”
“Family of Danroy Henry, Pace football player killed by cop, will file wrongful death suit,” Lukas I. Alpert, New York Daily News, April 20 2011,
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