Rappers are a quixotic American phenomenon. Are they merely here to entertain or can they educate? Are they James Baldwin in disguise or are they thugs who got lucky? The answer roils somewhere in the center. They're both, and they are so much more. They are fully realized, three-dimensional humans living lives with consequences. In short, rappers are people, too.
Lately it's become vogue to talk about the world "out there" in Hip Hop. Blame Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole; blame weary policemen opening fire on 12-year-old Tamir Rice or choking Eric Garner to death while he shouted "I can't breathe!"; blame Flint, Michigan being forced to go without clean water for some two years now. Whichever incident you point to, the world "out there" has forced its way into our headphones and down our Twitter feeds. Now, with President Donald Trump at large, it would seem race is the only metric that matters.
But those guys — the Cole's and the Lamar's —are just the tip of the iceberg. This wave has come to impact even the most pop centric emcees. Drake, our current king of pop, came out with a statement summer of last year after seeing Alton Sterling being gunned down like a dog in South Carolina.
So the deluge of headlines showing Black people dead in the custody of white jailers or at the end of a police officer's gun have become so pervasive, it's become both morally and financially expedient to speak on it. T.I. dropped his Us or Else EP last year to headlines on CNN. Lamar's Damn put front-and-center the Black emcee as mythological figure. Soothsayer to African-American's take on the violent American zeitgeist. With Black people literally fighting for their lives, it behooves those with a platform, socially conscious or otherwise, to step up.
Then JAY-Z dropped 4:44.
The commentary reached a kind of fever pitch. In many ways JAY-Z is a patriarch of today's rap scene. He's old, rich, and wise. So when he made a record chronicling his own mess—ripe with financial advice for Black America— he seemed to come down off his mountain to offer us his commandments. Sure, one of the main hooks was his treatment of Beyoncé. What happened in that elevator, we all wondered. But the album became an old head's take on the current scene and brought with it an escape from the turn-up-or-Christian dichotomy that can often come to dominate the hip-hop conversation.
Now, with every day providing some new type of socially regressive horror, rappers can either lead with their thoughts or be lead. Ice Cube jumped on Bill Maher to tackle his "house nigger" comment to a warm reception.
And you know what else is a warm reception? J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and JAY-Z's art going platinum. Sometimes taking a stand is good for your pockets. These days are some of those times.