Apart from his music, and lots of charisma, you might wonder about all the fuss over Kendrick Lamar, ranked “Hottest MC in the Game” by MTV’s vaunted Hip-Hop Brain Trust earlier this year. There have been extremely talented, charismatic, even prophetic rappers before, and younger than Lamar, who at 25 has already assembled a body of work rivaling the greatest rappers’ of all time. Nas released Illmatic, the gold standard for lyrical debut albums to which Lamar’s first major label release, good kid M.A.A.D. City, is often compared, at 20. Tupac, Lamar’s favorite rapper, died at 25. And, incredibly, Pac and Nas were on the radio at the same time.
If you really want to know what makes Lamar interesting, what sets him apart from so many of his peers, and even a few of his idols, turn to FM 107.5 WGCI, “Chicago’s Hip-hop and R&B.” On GCI, the two rappers who followed Lamar on MTV’s list of the Hottest MC’s in the Game, 2 Chainz and Rick Ross, rule the roost. Between 2 Chainz’s clowning and Ross’s disingenuous showboating sits Lamar in lotus position, with three singles from good kid in heavy rotation.
It can be a jarring experience. Last fall, good kid’s first single, “Swimming Pools,” with a screwed-up chorus and dramatic, new-age melody, became an instant GCI staple. At first I was wary of its saccharine sound. Promising young rappers with exceptional mixtape pedigrees, like Lamar, routinely misstep into their major label debuts with singles overtly designed for the radio. But the content of “Swimming Pools” was strangely rich for GCI–Lamar reflectively warns against alcohol abuse, then sings of a mutually suicidal shoot-out–so I let my guard down. I should’ve known Lamar had a trick up his sleeve.
Turns out “Swimming Pools” is the most contrived song on the album. While it fits neatly into good kid’s cinematic scheme, it’s not like the other tracks. Once the album dropped, there was no obvious choice for a second single, except “Poetic Justice,” featuring Drake—because it featured Drake, another GCI mainstay (and fifth on MTV’s list, if you’re counting). That doesn’t make “Poetic Justice” any less strange to hear on the radio. It’s melancholy and slow, nothing like the rest of GCI’s playlist.
I recently returned to the segments on MTV’s website where the Brain Trust discusses the rationale behind each of its selections, decided by vote. The Brain Trust has a controversial history–it’s the nature of the beast–but I found myself nodding along as the committee announced its top five. What startled me was the open premium on radio-friendly singles. One member of the committee, based in New York, objected to Nas’s placement at #4, one ahead of Drake, saying he hadn’t heard a Nas song on the radio in six months. Though Nas’s nostalgic Life Is Good was my favorite album of 2012 by a rapper not named Kendrick Lamar (it was Lamar’s favorite, too), I nearly agreed with this lone dissenter. And I can do him one better: no single from Life Is Good was ever played regularly on GCI.
It makes Lamar’s presence on GCI all the more remarkable. He has wrestled himself onto the radio with songs that rely foremost on thoughtful, lyrical storytelling, which even the great Nas cannot do. Before settling on the #1 spot, the committee compared the accomplishments of Lamar and 2 Chainz. Do you listen to GCI? 2 Chainz’s accomplishments are vast. He is the most infectious guest rapper since Busta Rhymes. But there isn’t a point in Busta’s career where he contended for #1—2 Chainz is that kind of infectious. Nonetheless, the vote for Lamar was unanimous.
Most of the time I listen to GCI on the clock. I’m in grad school, for social work. On weekends I work as a “Residential Treatment Specialist” in a large therapeutic group home for adolescent boys and girls. I drive the kids around a lot with GCI set as the default station (and so it will be as long as Power 92.3 cuts out on the Expressway). On long trips, cycling through GCI’s current playlist is like listening to a mixtape; on longer trips, it’s like listening to the same mixtape two or three times. For the hip-hop head in me, this can be an enjoyable experience. What the credibility of the Brain Trust reflects is that many of the best rappers today are on the radio. It’s also a morally compromising position. Behind the wheel I am the sole caretaker of up to four children at a time, wards of the state with a variety of emotional and behavioral health issues. Forget Kendrick Lamar. Most of what GCI plays is, in the parlance of the group home, inappropriate.
Take, for example, a recent, inescapable hit by rapper Juicy J, “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” featuring 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne. I’d wager that every single kid I work with (up to 64 live in the residential facility at a time) knows this song by heart from listening to GCI. “Bandz” in this case are rubber bands, the kind used to wrap stacks of U.S. currency together. They make her dance because she’s a stripper.
If you haven’t heard it, here’s the chorus:
Bandz a make her dance
Bandz a make her dance
All these chick poppin’ pussy
I’m just poppin’ bandz
Bandz a make her dance
Bandz a make her dance
All these chicks clappin’
And they ain’t usin’ hands.
The track weaves a syncopated clapping sound throughout–though I doubt the kids need any help figuring out what “these chicks” are using if not their hands. The rappers rap about: receiving oral sex while driving (Juicy J, 2 Chainz); recreational drug use (Juicy J, Lil Wayne); threesomes (Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz); and a possible foursome (Juicy J). Lil Wayne says he’ll “make a movie with your bitch,” while 2 Chainz avers, “If your bitch don’t swallow kids, man, that ho basic.” All three have more money to spend at the strip club than they know what to do with, though Juicy J and 2 Chainz each remind us the strip club’s pretty pointless if you yourself have none. Stripping is her job, after all.
I don’t know what standards the FCC has in place for FM radio these days, but it’s got to where they mean almost nothing at all, or else GCI flagrantly abuses them. No, you won’t hear the exact words I’ve quoted from “Bandz A Make Her Dance” on GCI. Curse words and references to “inappropriate” subject matter are edited. But gone is the abrasive beep used once on Lamar’s good kid in a wink and nod to the cassette tape era. Now curse words are digitally manipulated to sound as though the reel-to-reel were suddenly slowed down mid-syllable; or otherwise the preceding word is repeated in place of the offending word (e.g., “All these chicks poppin’, poppin’”). Whichever, the effect is to mitigate the loss in continuity from so many edited words. It works like a charm. If anything, it’s fun for the kids at work to figure out what the rappers are saying.
To its credit, while strip club anthems are perfectly permissible, GCI (or the FCC) appears to draw the line at gratuitous violence. Maybe it hits too close to home. Chief Keef, the (living) embodiment of gang violence in Chicago as a national news story–the anti-Lamar–is rarely heard on GCI since his major label album, Finally Rich, dropped back in December. And GCI’s rotation of on-air personalities pays frequent lip service between songs to stopping the violence. Even so, the line is pretty far to one extreme. When Kanye West remixed Keef’s “I Don’t Like” last summer into a breakout national hit, he threw on Jadakiss for the final eight bars. Kiss raps, “I done sold purp’, I done sold white/Runnin’ outta work, that’s that shit I don’t like.” So much for the link between violence and drug-dealing–GCI played it incessantly.
The dilemma I face as a paid guardian to the group home kids puts a troubling twist on the question of parental responsibility. If I don’t like or approve of what the kids are listening to, I can just turn it off. You might even say it’s my job. But what to replace it with? GCI holds a revered place in the universe of Chicago’s youth of color. (A few years ago, the station flogged a quote from newly-elected President Obama in which he confessed Sasha and Malia listened to GCI.) For some, including the kids I work with (and they are mostly youth of color), GCI represents nothing less than the most important outlet for creative expression they have.
If that’s the case, we, Chicagoans, have a problem. GCI advertises itself as “Chicago’s Hip-hop.” (This article is not about R&B.) Our hip-hop shouldn’t be limited to a lone rapper, Lamar (with apologies to J-Cole and Wale), who dares defy the corporate-driven glorification of sex, drugs, and consumerism that–let GCI tell it–defines the rest. Hip-hop is much too important.
In January of last year my partner Eddie Vogel and I began a series of long interviews with self-identifying hip-hop heads called Rhymes & Reasons. The format’s pretty straightforward. We ask them to share meaningful bits of their life stories through the lens of two or three of their favorite songs. In other words: What are the reasons the rhymes are meaningful to you?
Rhymes & Reasons isn’t a promotional device; more like oral history. Yes, we interview hip-hop artists, but not about their own work so much as their inspirations. We also interview members of our community–local, national, and now global–to document the impact of hip-hop on ordinary people. Each subject bares a little of his or her soul, and that’s the point. The project is predicated on the idea that hip-hop, through its special brand of lyricism, has the power to change lives.
The idea is nothing new, but only recently has the hip-hop generation truly come of age. Hip-hop heads who were listening to Chuck D around the time he famously called hip-hop “the black CNN” are now old enough to reflect on how his music affected them at multiple life stages. Indeed, there are now generations of hip-hop heads. Our first subject, Chicago rapper and union organizer Jasson Perez, formerly of BBU, talked about Tupac’s “Keep Your Head Up.” Raised by a single mother, Jasson drew sustenance from the song as a child–then, later, as a single father.
To be clear, when I say hip-hop has the power to change lives, I’m talking about positive change. More than thirty interviews and counting, we’re still waiting for the first to say hip-hop’s had a negative impact. Admittedly, that has a lot to do with who we are as well as whom we interview. Eddie and I are social workers; the Rhymes & Reasons headquarters is located in the unused attic of a shelter facility in the Back of the Yards where Eddie works and lives. To paraphrase Tree (another Chicago MC who also picked “Keep Your Head Up”), Rhymes & Reasons relates to the bottom. Anyone who sits down to talk to us is likely doing it, so to speak, for the cause.
Yet hip-hop emphatically has a downside, an equivalent power to change lives for the worse. We haven’t always known this, though some predicted it. In 1993, the late C. Delores Tucker mounted one of the earliest campaigns against misogyny in hip-hop, saying, “You can’t listen to all that language and filth without it affecting you.” She became the subject of numerous rappers’ ire, including KRS-One, Tupac, and Eminem. Twenty years ago, to demand that rappers alter the content of their rhymes for fear of negatively influencing the listener was to ignore the fact that the lyrics were often reflections of real life in disenfranchised, mostly African-American communities. As Lamar himself might attest, there was little a rapper like Eazy-E could say that a kid from Compton couldn’t find out on his own; and in the music of a different rapper, perhaps, like Eazy’s erstwhile bandmate, Ice Cube, that same kid could find affirmation and upliftment. And if you weren’t from Compton, the South Bronx, or Houston’s Fifth Ward–like so many “cages,” as another of our subjects, Masta Ace, has called poor, black neighborhoods which are the legacies of oppression–it was your responsibility to find out what was happening there. For many of us, hip-hop was a source of information.
What’s more, real hip-hop, whether conscious or crass, simply wasn’t played on the radio for everyone to hear, with few exceptions, like “Keep Your Head Up.” (Perez remembered listening to it while sweeping his mother’s kitchen; Tree remembered it quieting a room of people in the projects of Cabrini Green.) The “pornographic filth” Tucker agitated against was labeled with Parental Advisory stickers on tapes and CDs. Different parents, different stores, different shopkeepers enforced varying policies regarding that sticker, but at a minimum a kid had to come by the music via a third party, with cash on hand.
Today the situation is turned on its head. Hip-hop dominates urban radio. If anything, given its outsize influence on hip-hop culture, where it once had none, you might say mainstream radio, to make the purist shudder, is hip-hop’s home base. It’s also free. Radio’s conceit in the age of the digital divide is that it’s basically accessible to anyone, which makes it pretty difficult to keep away from the wrong ears. Picture a parent, much less a social worker, restricting a child with few options from the radio: practically absurd. Yet filthy, pornographic things, with no relationship to the child’s reality (“Bandz a Make Her Dance”), are played on the air. Meanwhile, nothing about what’s happening in poor, black neighborhoods is conveyed to the outsider–that much hasn’t changed. Ultimately, Kendrick Lamar is swimming alone in the same static sea as Pac, except with better rappers.
What kind of impact is this having? We can only speculate. But while it was once routine to compare hip-hop to, say, rock and roll, in that the latter was initially received by many with trepidation, if not outright disgust, and everything turned out all right (a highly debatable point in any case), it’s not the type of argument you hear much anymore. In fact, many of our subjects, when they recall hip-hop’s positive impact on their own lives, despair of anything similar for younger generations to listen to. There is no longer the reflexive urge to defend hip-hop from criticism. Instead, there is a sense of something in hip-hop gone wrong, with tragic consequences for the youth played out in front of our very eyes.
Common once rapped of hearing a little girl on 87th Street reciting lyrics “about how she made brothers cum.” Then he started thinking, “How many lives has hip-hop affected?” Plenty–Rhymes & Reasons is proof enough of that. Hip-hop is distinguished from other genres of music by the actionable force of its poetry. In the past few years, hip-hop’s lyrical content has acquired the patina of a reputable academic discipline (complete with an anthology published by Yale University Press). The difference is: hip-hop isn’t high-brow. As Common later rapped, it’s for the people. Which is why Rhymes & Reasons relies on lay critics, average listeners like you and me, to parse the personal meanings in each great song.
Strange to remember that hip-hop, as a genre, was once so controversial. Ross and Lil Wayne have recently shown that individual artists can still cause an uproar with a careless bar or two. But their occasional excesses prove that we have otherwise incorporated hip-hop’s seamy, nihilistic underside into wider pop culture, where it fits right in. The music is filtered through consolidated mainstream machinery, creating a distorted image of the community it purports to represent. Asking the hard questions about our collective way of life–or, at least, authentically representing it–is reserved for the quaint likes of Lamar. That, too, is the spirit of Rhymes & Reasons: to understand hip-hop’s impact, for good and ill, within life’s tough complexity.
Eddie and I worry about the over-representation of 70s and 80s babies in the Rhymes & Reasons interview pool. Inevitably, the wistfulness with which they recall hip-hop’s golden age is just a part of hip-hop growing up. But we aren’t that old. Enough of us still listen to hip-hop that our frustration with its current state is rooted in having so little to inspire us, to play in the background as we continue to live our lives. Tellingly, Rhymefest, in his interview, compared Lamar to a drink of water. It was a back-handed compliment: if you’re dying of thirst for something with substance, Lamar will seem like the greatest thing since Nas. And he does.
Still, as Ol’ Dirty Bastard knew, hip-hop is for the children. On any given night, Eddie and I can look outside the attic window and see shorties who need hip-hop’s affirmation and upliftment more than ever. A decade from now, if Rhymes & Reasons, like a hip-hop Story Corps, is still collecting interviews, we expect today’s young people to recall the first time they heard Lamar, and how his words helped them through their struggle. Some of them will even have GCI to thank.
Many more will be lost. For them, Lamar will have been drowned out by their surroundings, by a city and society structured to ensure their irrelevance. They won’t have hip-hop songs that helped them at all to recall. I have a question for GCI–the DJs, program directors, corporate sponsors, and every one of us with our radios preset to 107.5: What are those same children listening to right now? And what are we going to do about it?