If you’re one of those 40-something-year-olds (or older) who, when evaluating today’s hip-hop scene, often find yourself reminiscing about the days of your youth (or much younger adulthood) when rap musicians did more than celebrate one’s material belongings, brag about sexual exploits, embrace societal indifference, promote violence and generally refer to their peers with those ever endearing b- and n-words, you might want to think again. Today’s hip-hop heads are no different than those of ten, 20 and (to a lesser extent) even 25 years ago. What rappers are singing about now is pretty much the same stuff they were putting on wax at the dawn of the 1990s, barely ten years into the genre’s commercial emergence.
Most of my friends are in that 40-plus club and many of them are former rap-heads who often lament the state of today’s hip-hop. It’s a common refrain among them to blast the likes of Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky or Big Sean (three of the seven rappers to top the Billboard 200 album chart this year) for their misogyny and brashness. Heck, even otherwise clean-cut, mixed-race Canadian rapper Drake gets into the act – and debatably pulls it off – with his liberal n-word usage.
But folks, to use a variation of a common expression, this is your granddaddy’s rap music (or at least your daddy’s).
Thanks to a suggestion by one of my closest fraternity brothers (Roo, Reggie!), I’ve done a comparative analysis of popular rap music lyrics from today and from yesteryear, which per Reggie’s idea, I’ll illustrate through the use of word-cloud art, like this one:
To get started, I took a look back at the top rap albums from the various eras in question. The focus is on the past 25 years, which represent hip-hop’s most commercially successful period.
Beginning with the current chart and working backwards, the top ten rap albums this week (chart dated 8/1/15), according to Billboard, are:
- Dreams Worth More Than Money – Meek Mill
- If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – Drake
- To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
- AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP – A$AP Rocky
- 2014 Forest Hills Drive – J. Cole
- Touch Down 2 Cause Hell – Boosie BadAzz
- Dark Sky Paradise – Big Sean
- Adrian Younge Presents: Twelve Reasons To Die II – Ghostface Killah
- The Pinkprint – Nicki Minaj
- Hogg Life, Vol. II: Still Surviving – Slim Thug
All ten of those albums make liberal use of the n-word (in all cases it’s the commonly used variation that ends in the letter ‘a’). Drake, who has the biggest rap album of 2015 so far, uses it as a self-reference (for example, “I be with the bands like a nigga went to Jackson State” from the song “Used To”), more so than he does in referring to others in his lyrics.
Meek Mill’s and A$AP’s songs drop “nigga” more often than common article words like “the” and “a,” and regularly make the all-too-common references to slingin’ dope and pimpin’ women like they were badges of honor. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are more introspective with their references, contemplating life’s experiences and the state of black America, although they occasionally ponder the usual topics of sex, drugs and money.
In the lower half of the top ten, Nicki Minaj, the lone female on this list, regularly describes encounters with potential lovers and muses over their short-comings in the bedroom. And longtime veteran Ghostface Killah poses as a gangsta and talks about ruling New York City (in other words, more of the same ish from his earlier repertoire of albums).
However, looking back at the popular rap albums of ten years ago, I found that there wasn’t much variation from today’s list, in terms of themes explored.
The top ten rap albums from 10 years ago this week:
- Already Platinum – Slim Thug
- Wanted – Bow Wow
- The Cookbook – Missy Elliott
- U.S.A.: United States of Atlanta – Ying Yang Twins
- Diplomats & DukeDaGod Present: More than Music Vol. 1 – Dipset
- Who Is Mike Jones? – Mike Jones
- Savage Life – Webbie
- Hustle & Flow Soundtrack
- Boys N Da Hood – Boyz N Da Hood
- Be – Common
Slim Thug is the only common name in the top tens from this week and ten years ago, but his messages are pretty much the same now as they were then, as illustrated by the above word cloud featuring lyrics from his “Like A Boss” track.
And like today’s sole female representative, Missy Elliott drew on the same sexual themes as Minaj, while occasionally leaving the bedroom to give props to her crew (as Minaj does) and denouncing all the other “b*tches” out there who dare cross them.
Oh, and like this year’s albums, all ten of the top albums on the 2005 list make regular use of the n-word to illustrate themes that are even more narrowly focused than those of today’s artists (at least 2015 has Lamar and Cole). Common was the only socially conscious rapper on the 2005 list, yet even very good tracks like “It’s Your World” and “Love Is…” couldn’t find a way to make their points without the n-words being included.
(By the way, whatever happened to Mike Jones anyway?)
And the list from 20 years ago?*
- Operation Stackola – Luniz
- Phantom of the Rapra – Bushwick Bill
- Mack 10 – Mack 10
- Me Against the World– 2pac
- Ready To Die – The Notorious B.I.G.
- Another Day Anotha Balla – South Circle
- Poverty’s Paradise – Naughty by Nature
- The Infamous – Mobb Deep
- 2000 – Grand Puba
- In A Major Way – E-40
In flipping through a sample of lyrics from all ten of those 1995 albums, every one of them have songs that liberally use the n-word. Topically, they offer a mix of common rap themes ranging from bagging women and smoking “indo” weed to basking in all the material things that money can buy.
Finally, going back to 1990*, the top ten rap albums were:
- Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em – M.C. Hammer
- Amerikkka’s Most Wanted – Ice Cube
- Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy
- To the East, Blackwards – X Clan
- Let the Rhythm Hit Em – Eric B.
- Sex Packets – Digital Underground
- World Power – Snap
- Holy Intellect – Poor Righteous Teachers
- We’re All in the Same Gang – Various
- Livin Like Hustlers – Above the Law
Here’s where things actually got a little more interesting. Of the ten albums on the 1990 list, only the albums by Ice Cube and Above the Law make liberal use of the n-word in their lyrics. Two more (Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers) make rare use of it (I only found it one time on each album), but they do so while raising social consciousness among their listeners. Public Enemy’s Chuck D actually spells it the traditional way (n*gger) on the lyric sheet to emphasize the less endearing definition of the term while illustrating his point about black oppression in America.
The group Digital Underground (pre-2pac) stays away from the n-word in its hit album, but has no problem with the b-word in describing its female sexual targets. Snap (which was more of a dance/rap studio creation), X Clan, Eric B. and MC Hammer stay completely clear of the foul language, violence and misogyny that pervades the other albums. And the only killing that Eric B. speaks of is the kind that he commits with his rhymes and beats. The one-time collective that created the We’re All In The Same Gang album contributed a bunch of songs whose lyrics I could not find on the Internet, but the title single (whose lyrics I did find) used violent imagery in its dubious attempts to persuade youth not to embrace the gangsta lifestyle.
Thus, while rap music maybe hasn’t evolved over the past 25 years, at least not in the lyrical sense, it hasn’t necessarily devolved either. Our artists are still rapping about “splittin’ wigs with gats,” cuttin’ “hoes,” and “bankin’ cheddar.” As they were 20 and 25 years ago, they are still narrating some of these street tales while contemplating the ills of society that often plague the communities from which they came. They’re just using different terms to do it.
But there’s that one word that they’re still using as readily as they were then.
So what does all of this mean for the future of rap music? What will our hip-hop word merchants be rapping about in 2025 or even 2040? Based on the track record of the past quarter-century, probably the same tales of fast cars, faster women, loaded guns and easy money…and that ever-present n-word will likely still be in heavy rotation.
Speaking of the future, as I finished this, I learned that the next Billboard album chart (8/8/15) will have a new number one. It’s by yet another rap artist. His name is appropriately, Future, and his recent hit single, “Commas,” helped setup this album’s lofty début.
Now if you’re thinking in that hit song, when Future suggests “let’s f*ck up some commas” that he’s asking us to get right with our grammar and correct the often misused punctuation, think again. The only commas he’s referring to are the ones that separate zeros in dollar figures.
And rap’s ‘future’ begins now.
By the way, while I haven’t created a special playlist to go with this article, you can see my exclusive listing of ALL the rap albums that have topped the Billboard 200 album chart, dating back to 1987, by clicking here. You can access its accompanying playlist (one song from each album) by clicking here.
*Note: Billboard didn’t publish a rap albums chart until 2004. I pulled the data for 1990 and 1995 from the top rap albums as they were listed on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop albums charts.