In 2009, a digital media company named Rap Genius was established. It focused on interpreting and explaining hip hop lyrics, sort of like “what the author meant” for the modern age.
I remember being extremely excited about this. It was a Holy Grail for rap fans around the world, as there was always debate or confusion about what certain lyrics meant. However, I also remember people saying things like “Why do rap songs need interpreting and “There is no deep meaning in rap”.
To the outsiders, hip hop is dumb genre made for dumb people. They see it as only repetitive lyrics about money, cars, guns, and hoes. Hip hop degrades women, promotes materialism, and violence. If you ask them, there is hardly anything good about it.
For anybody who took, like, 5 minutes to actually learn anything about hip hop, knows that this is the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, all of those things are part of the hip hop genre as a whole, but there is so much more to explore.
I am not ignorant enough to claim that hip hop is all-good.
There are a lot of bad ideas and notions that hip hop promotes and many rappers do focus on promoting violence, materialism, and hateful views. Like anything in life, the good only shines when compared to the bad.
With that said, hip hop is a majestic art form and, as such, has much to offer.
Hip hop has been a huge influence in my life. It guided me in my moments of darkness and is partially responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. Here are some valuable lessons it taught me:
1. Build Confidence in Yourself
In elementary, I was ridiculed a lot. Being the artist-y, unorthodox, introverted kid always into weird hobbies, I was an easy target for bullies. Being raised overly-sensitive only made me more insecure in myself.
I knew I shouldn’t care and I knew these people were jerks. But I still felt powerless.
These feelings changed when I put on my headphones and escaped into the world of rap. I felt empowered. I felt tough, even though I wasn’t. I felt like I was not alone and that somebody else knew exactly what I was going through.
That’s a powerful feeling and something I try to do with this website as well. Eminem, one of the most influential and popular rappers of all time, often highlights this in his lyrics as he was often bullied as a child. In many of his songs, he explores this concept of using rap to build confidence, or at least recuperate after a hard day.
Even looking back at its history, that’s how hip hop started.
The genre was created by powerless people in the poverty-ridden places. It was very different than what you hear today but the essential is the same: hip hop makes you feel like you’re the best (even if you’re not). It amps up your mood and energizes you.
That’s what the name itself means, hip (cool, fresh) hop (movement).
This can be a good thing and a bad thing. This is also the main reason there are so many rappers who obviously fake their confidence or wealth. Many people do get wrong ideas from rap and become delusional about themselves.
Like everything in life, you need to find the proper balance. And in moments of need, blasting rap can be just what the doctor ordered (Dr. Dre, of course).
2. Stand Up For Yourself
Hip hop evolved from battle raps. Two people in front of a crowd, using clever lines to insult each other. Everybody’s saying they’re the best and they have to show it with their skills.
The rap of the 1990s, which showcased the prime of rappers like 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr.Dre, Nas and Jay-Z to name a few, focused around complex, multi-syllable rhymes and storytelling. It’s lyrics like these that Rap Genius originally aimed to interpret.
Many of the greatest rappers, like KRS-One and Eminem, came from battle rapping. Many of the greatest rap songs are diss tracks (song version of a battle rap). When two great rappers fight (Jay-Z vs Nas or 2Pac vs The Notorious B.I.G.), this tension brings out the best in them.
While the actual reasons for these squabbles are usually bullshit, the outcome is marvelous. You have to fight for your honor and stand up for yourself, so you really have to make sure that you come correct.
This boils over into every person listening. When you consume music that is based on standing up for what you believe in and standing up to people who abuse you, you become more inclined to that for yourself.
3. You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To
Many of the rappers, especially those from the 80s and 90s, literally came from nothing.
Hip hop allowed someone in a rough environment to become good at something through hard work and dedication. Of course, nothing is really that simple, but it’s no wonder that many of the greatest rappers are literal rags to riches stories.
So for people like me, who didn’t have to struggle with the same issues and live a semi-comfortable life, this is an inspiration.
I mean, if people who were dealt a really bad hand in life managed to climb up to the top — and many of them did — what’s stopping me from doing the same? Especially considering that I have many of the advantages they didn’t.
Somehow, I’m guessing, the same applies to you.
4. Do Not Become The Monster You’re Fighting
Hip hop has always rebelled against the norm.
In its beginnings, it was a voice for the African-American communities who dealt with drug epidemics, police brutality, and poverty. When talking about these issues, foul language and taboo topics like sex, drugs, and violence are unavoidable.
However, while fighting against prejudice, it’s easy to become exactly the thing you’re fighting.
Law enforcement officials who become like the criminals they’re fighting. Magneto from X-Men, who grew up in concentration camps, is so scarred from mutants being hunted like jews in WW2 that, in his attempts to stop it, becomes the one doing the hunting.
The entire psychology of characters like Batman revolve around the morality of the character and how much of a monster he really is.
And all of this is summed up in this famous quote:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.Friedrich Nietzsche
In fighting for justice and equality, hip hop propagates the same issues they try to solve. They fight against police brutality while ignoring the fact they abuse and degrade women. They fight for equality for black people while proposing violence against homosexuals.
However, not everything is so one-sided.
2Pac had several hits that praise women and promote women’s rights (like Dear Mama and Keep Ya Head Up). Eminem, who had entire songs filled with hatred towards his wife and mother, later wrote that he regrets it. Rappers like Macklemore, Logic and Joyner Lucas have mainstream songs that talk about gay marriage, suicide prevention, and driving drunk.
Some people don’t change. There are still old-school and underground, even mainstream rappers that never changed their views. They still make songs preaching hate and violence against certain groups. But there’s a reason you don’t hear those songs on the radio.
As Eminem noted in Sing for the Moment, it is easy to look up to your role models and influential people too much and try to imitate them even in bad things. They are not perfect and neither are you.
Be smart and make up your own mind. When fighting for what you believe in, make sure not to run other people over.
5. Find a Strong Partner and You Will Thrive
This one is a follow-up to the last point.
Misogyny is a part of hip hop and there is no way around it. The typical “rapper’s dream” consists of money, luxury items, and easy sex with lots of people.
However, you don’t need to look further than power couples like Jay-Z and Beyonce to see that, in the end, the narrative has changed dramatically. Female rappers like Nicki Minaj twist things around and assert their dominance with songs like Barbie Dreams, a spin-off of the popular Biggie Smalls’ song where he talks about R’n’B singers he wants to have sex with.
Yes, a lot of guys still talk about hoes and yes, a lot of girls use their body to enhance their careers. I’m not here to make excuses or justifications for anybody.
All I’m saying is, when looking at the big picture, I noticed that those who never give up the promiscuous lifestyle usually end up unhappy, alone, and unsatisfied. Go figure.
6. Money is Temporary, Business Is Not
Rappers often flaunt their wealth and show off luxury items. Considering most rappers blow up at a young age, usually sometime in their 20s, it’s not hard to understand why they’re attracting to the partying lifestyle.
Eventually, you stop making hits and the money stops and you’re left holding a bag of warm dog shit. Even rappers who were continuously topping the charts, like 50 Cent, Xzibit or DMX, are no strangers to filing for bankruptcy or getting in trouble for not paying taxes.
On the other hand, you have entrepreneurial minds like Jay-Z or Dr. Dre.
They realize that money and fame are temporary so they make better decisions. They invest their money. They build brands and diversify their income. Even though they’re way past their prime and even though hip hop is owned by young and up-and-coming artists, they still thrive.
Don’t chase fast money. See money as a tool for building a better life, not as better life itself.
7. Most of What People Care About Is Bullshit
The same things that go for high school kind of go for hip hop.
In high school, everybody stresses over popularity, being cool, and trivial things that pretty much stop being relevant as soon as high school ends. Things that actually matter, like grades and knowledge, are secondary, even though they can influence and improve the rest of your life.
In hip hop, everybody cares too much about chains, cars, money, clothes, hoes, villas, private jets, and things of that nature. Just like high school, the primary focus is on things that should be secondary.
Don’t get me wrong, these things sound fucking amazing. Surfing the crowd or being famous sounds cool, at least in theory. In reality, most of us wouldn’t really enjoy it and that’s fine.
In the long run, these things don’t matter. Just like money comes and goes, so does the attention, hot girls/guys, and luxurious items. By being too focused on materialistic and trivial things, you are likely to miss out on things that actually build a quality life: good relationships, exploration, building a better future.
It’s not bad to be popular or live lavishly. It’s bad to think it’s necessary.
8. Don’t Overanalyze Everything
Finally, hip hop taught me to chill the fuck out.
I’m prone to overanalyzing and this article is living proof to that. Hip hop can be a great tool for justice and awareness. It can start movements and change lives. But in the end, it can also be… just music.
I mean, how can you take a guy called Lil Dicky, rapping about being frugal, seriously? Or how about the time Biz Markie rapped about how he was friendzoned? And Eminem’s first major album had lyrics like this:
Jumped in a Chickenhawk cartoon with a cape on
And beat up Foghorn Leghorn with an acorn
I’m ’bout as normal as Norman Bates with deformative traits
A premature birth that was four minutes late
Hip hop, like any music, is an escape from reality. It tells stories, pumps you up for your workout, and makes you reflect on things. Some people like it, some don’t.
No matter where you stand, you can definitely learn a thing or two from it.