Earlier this year, hip-hop (which, sadly, for stat tracking purposes now includes R&B as a sub-genre, versus the other way around) was declared the most consumed genre in music, beating rock for the first time while claiming 25.1% of all music we bought and/or streamed during the first six months of 2017. According to Nielsen Music, the industry sales tracking company that measures these things (and feeds Billboard’s charts) rock music was second with 23%.
Now this of course takes into account online streaming figures, which is the predominant means by which people get their music these days. And hip-hop artists benefit the most from that as their audience is generally younger – and younger people tend to gravitate more towards audio and video streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Pandora and YouTube than do their older, presumably rock- (and other genre-) leaning counterparts.
Hip-hop’s new crowning would normally be a good-news story for hip-hop artists, and for black acts in general, especially considering how far hip-hop has had to come to finally overtake a genre that has been king for the better part of six(!) decades.
But there’s also an ugly side to this victory for hip-hop and R&B, a side that couldn’t be more stark in its extreme nature.
And no, I’m not talking about the recent trend that is mumble rap or that annoying sound effect “skrrrr” rappers over-use in mimicking the sound made by the expensive cars they brag about.
Nor am I sparking a debate on whether trap music – monotonous beats and all – is truly hip-hop (yes, folks, it is).
And this is not a “my generation’s music is better than today’s music argument,” it goes far deeper than that.
I’m talking about a side to hip-hop we’ve always known to exist, but the extent to which didn’t dawn on me until a recent long road trip where I had the occasion to listen to all the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 – the authoritative chart for tracking the most popular songs in America – via a playlist a good friend created for me.
Admittedly, I hadn’t really listened to many of the songs on the chart before then (I have a nine-hour drive to thank for this recent occasion), so many of these tunes I was hearing for the first time.
But what I heard made me take notice…and cringe.
For the Hot 100 chart dated October 7, 2017, there were 35 hip-hop songs listed, plus another eight that qualify as R&B. For context, thirty-five (or 43 with the R&B included) is a pretty large number – I remember a time as late as 1986 when there were no rap songs charting – and this recent tally is certainly reflective of the market share that hip-hop has amassed in 2017 as Nielsen Music’s mid-year numbers indicated.
But here’s the cringeworthy part: of the 35 hip-hop records, all but two of them had at least one – and many times four or five – of the following words in their lyrics:
That’s 33 out of 35 currently charting hip-hop songs – predominantly by black artists – whose lyrics are so littered with vulgarities that it would make Queen Latifah cry foul.
At the very least it would make her take notice.
In addition, of the remaining eight “R&B” songs (the ones by black artists), four of them used at least one of those six words. So that’s 37 of 43 hip-hop/R&B songs that had one or more of those six terms in their lyrics – or roughly 86%.
The biggest offenders were, not surprisingly, the F-word, N-word and B-word.
The F-word appeared in 26 of the hip-hop recordings and one of the R&B hits, while the B-word appeared in 26 hip-hop songs.
The N-word wasn’t far behind, appearing in 23 of the hip-hop songs and two of the R&B tunes.
That means that all three of those words appeared in at least a quarter of the songs charting on the Hot 100. (And don’t even bring up the whole parental advisory label thing or the fact that many of these songs have clean edited versions; many kids can and do still access the explicit ones online.)
Additionally, female private parts were described using the P-word in nine of the songs, including Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up,” where Nicki Minaj made note of hers, while men got called out in six tunes with the D-word. At one point during a stretch of about four or five consecutive songs, I felt like I was in a torture-porn flick.
Women were called “hoes” in five hip-hop songs – actually a lower number than I expected – and that doesn’t include the one tune (“These Heaux”) that skirted the issue by coming up with a clever way to spell it. Finally, drug use (Molly, Percocet and the like) was referenced in six of the songs.
So which tunes were the worst offenders?
Three songs made use of five of the words: “Pills and Automobiles” by Chris Brown featuring Yo Gotti, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie & Kodak Black; “Rake It Up” by Yo Gotti featuring Nicki Minaj; and “HUMBLE.” by Kendrick Lamar.
“Pills and Automobiles” was easily the worst of the bunch. Here’s a sample of its lyrics:
I’m a street nigga, I’m supposed to really be behind bars, baby / Really wanna be faithful but this shit hard, baby/ Yup, I got the pussy first and then I ignored you/ You fucked another nigga, you ain’t loyal/ I told you bring a friend, this shit gettin’ borin’ / She asked me what we are, we just cordial/ I’m a gangsta I can make a wet, wet turn into a pool (splash)
Interestingly enough, the song was so immersed in its self-indulgence that there was no mention of an “automobile” anywhere in its lyrics.
Further analysis showed that this issue is clearly split down color lines. All 32 of the hip-hop songs by black artists used the offensive language. Conversely, of the three hip-hop songs by whites, only one made use of any of the words (and no, not the N-word).
Of the 57 non-hip-hop/R&B songs by non-black acts, only two of them made use of the B-word and/or F-word. And context is important here. In both those cases, neither use of the B-word was done in an embracing way. One was a commonly used reference to “payback” being a bitch (“Demi Lavado’s “Sorry, Not Sorry”), while the other described what a woman’s ex-boyfriend unflatteringly called her after their breakup (“Bad At Love” by Halsey).
The only thing missing from this sad state of affairs for black artists on today’s charts was the violence. Thankfully, only one or two of the songs seemed to glorify that – a welcome change from the gangsta-rap heyday of the 1990s.
But the fact that we’re still niggas, bitches and hoes talking about our dicks and pussies in most of our music is disturbing. The fact that it’s being done to this large an extent is alarming. To me it says that, in order for black musicians to even chart these days, we must continue to degrade ourselves.
The only new black artist seemingly given a pass on this unwritten rule is the young singer Khalid, whose concurrently charting songs “Location” and “Young Dumb and Broke” avoid any of the derogatory terms altogether.
But then, the brother did have to title his latest hit “Young, Dumb and Broke,” which isn’t much of a consolation. And a recent remix of the latter featuring Lil Yachty and Rae Sremmurd slipped a “nigga” into one of the verses.
Now I’m not trying to come off as being on some higher moral ground here than hip-hop artists. We’re all guilty of using crude language and can get down and dirty from time to time. But this isn’t just about the language. It’s about the messages it sends.
Popular black music was once empowering and uplifting, with messages of love and brotherhood contained throughout. This was especially true coming out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. It was nothing to see songs like “What’s Going On,” “Wake Up Everybody,” “War” and “Love Train” ruling the charts.
For years, blacks were able to sing about love in soul music classics like “Lean On Me,” “The Closer I Get To You,” “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Let’s Stay Together” and watch them sell millions of records alongside their pop counterparts.
Even in hip-hop’s earlier days, rap music was more diversified. Sure there was gangsta rap, but there was also more balance. Pro-black messages by groups like Public Enemy and Queen Latifah were mixed with the ratchet music of 2 Live Crew and Too $hort, but not to the point that it is today. If you put all 35 of this past week’s charting hip-hop songs on a single playlist, you’d swear you were in an Atlanta strip club on Piedmont Rd.
So how did this happen? How did it become the case that black artists could occupy more than 40% of the Hot 100 yet have more than 85% of that be ratchet music?
One must look first at an industry that is controlled by just three major labels (Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group) whose bottom line interest is profits. Through their smaller subsidiary labels like Columbia, Atlantic, Cash Money and Def Jam, many artists are signed to do one thing: deliver the hits, even if they’re just quick hits to ride the wave of a current music trend.
But it’s my belief that the blame doesn’t solely lie with the financial bottom line aspect of these labels’ businesses. There’s a conditioning that’s happened in black society – particularly among our youth – over years and years of being made to think that being a gangsta, a btch, a ngga or a ho is equal to holding some kind of power or value. I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps there’s some truth to the notion that this is what major labels want African-American artists (and their audience) to believe.
Many have speculated that real “black music” died some time ago and that the only way for the songs that are charting now to be as successful as they are is that non-black fans are consuming them in massive numbers as well. Non-black fans have increasingly embraced hip-hop over the decades, but clearly the music is more marketable to them if they don’t contain Afrocentric messages celebrating blackness.
Knowing its broader audience and bigger profit margin potential, labels had to tone down the pro-black messages so prevalent in ‘70s soul and early ‘90s hip-hop, to make the music more palatable to non-black consumers.
Indeed, in 2012, Billboard Magazine stopped bothering to even determine what black consumers like by making the R&B/Hip-Hop charts mere subsets of the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 lists. In that way, songs on the R&B charts appear in the exact same order they do on the pop chart, just with their pop and other genre-specific counterparts omitted. (Heck, it might as well be 1963 and ‘64 all over again, when Billboard briefly discontinued its R&B chart altogether because it wasn’t distinguishable enough from the Hot 100 pop survey.)
The three major labels certainly have the power to carry out such a narrative today. A recent report stated that Sony/BMG, Universal and Warner controlled 80% of the industry’s revenue as recently as 2015. Those labels control not just the companies’ purse strings but what music is released by their artists.
In other words, the music on today’s charts is apparently what those labels want us to hear – and sound like.
If that is indeed the case, there may be very little that young artists like those on this month’s Hot 100 charts can or are willing to do about it, especially with the lure of a get-rich-quick, hip-hop recording contract dangling before them at the hands of a Universal, a Sony/BMG or a Warner – or one of their subsidiaries.
But there may be hope.
With the Internet, more artists can control their own fate when it comes to controlling their music. The late Prince followed that model for several of his post-Warner Brothers, post-heyday releases in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recently in 2016, contemporary artist Frank Ocean tricked the label to which he was signed, Def Jam/Universal Music Group, by releasing only a video album for that label (available for streaming on Apple), followed by the actual 17-track album Blond a week later on his own label, Boys Don’t Cry. Ocean apparently absolved himself of any liability by repaying Def Jam the $2 million the company had spent in recording costs.
But not every artist is as savvy as a Prince or a Frank Ocean when it comes to walking away from the majors. And long-term freedom can often come with a price, as Prince learned and Ocean may yet find out (we will see with his next release as the previous one was deemed a success by most accounts).
In the meantime, we will likely continue commemorating the milestone successes of artists like Nicki Minaj (most Hot 100 entries by a female), Cardi B (first female solo rapper to hit No. 1 in 19 years) and Future (first artist to début two albums at No. 1 in consecutive weeks) because, well, that’s all there is today.
But that commemoration comes at a price as well.
We may have taken most of the gangsta out of our hip-hop, but we’re still killing ourselves slowly (or it’s being done for us) with these pimped-out lyrics that devalue us.
The problem is likely more complex than what I’ve laid out above, but wouldn’t it be nice if artists could take it upon themselves to address it. The solution could be as simple as this for today’s hip-hop stars:
Just stop being pimped!