Why Good Hip-Hop Needs Good Lyrics

By Max Ettelson

As a genre that began with simple breakbeats and lyrical rhythms, hip-hop has come quite a long way since its inception. What started as simple rhyme schemes and themes has evolved into the all-encompassing label for a variety of unique and disparate talents.

When this sort of labelling occurs, there’s always a style that becomes the mainstream definition of the genre. If you take a look at the billboard charts of the day, most of the songs you see are party songs, which is to be expected (Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” currently sits at the top of the list).

Though most party songs have pretty vapid lyrics, it used to be the case that people would know at least the chorus of the song, if not a select few passages of it. No one could ever forget the chorus and the first few lines of “My Name Is” by Eminem, or the refrain of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”. In the past few years, however, it’s become more and more common for popular artists to completely forego lyrical content and focus solely on their aesthetic. Most people have heard “Trap Queen”, but does anyone even know what’s being said in a majority of that song? Better yet, I challenge anyone who has never heard of Young Thug to listen and write the words to ANY of his songs. People who enjoy listening to these songs don’t really care what’s being said, they’re just enjoying the overall sound of the music.

Hip-hop is a massive genre, and the variety of artists within it is something to be proud of as a fan, but a problem arises when songs like “Trap Queen” or Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” are what is exclusively seen as modern-day hip hop by the mainstream.

Just as the sound of hip-hop evolved over time, so did the subject matter. Artists became more political over time, and they used hip-hop to convey messages about crime, religion, and the plight of the common man. When these artists began to emerge, they weren’t part of the mainstream. Throughout the Late 90’s and 2000’s, however, artists like Eminem, Kanye West, and (dare I say it?) Macklemore were able to use the airwaves to tell meaningful stories and entertain simultaneously.

A few years ago, we didn’t have the problem we have today. As mainstream Hip Hop has become dominated by aesthetic-based acts, the more lyrical and socially conscious artists have almost disappeared completely from the radio. Even Kanye’s newest single, “All Day”, relies heavily on the aestheticism of mainstream Hip Hop.

I have nothing against this new music itself, but I’m opposed to the future it may lead us to. There will always be people who think Hip Hop is “stupid” or “not music”, but if the mainstream continues on the trajectory it has, the number people in this camp will get even bigger, and that’s bad for hip-hop as a whole. The genre needs more representation from a variety of artists so as to show what can be done within it. Unless artists can show the mainstream that hip-hop still has the capacity to be more than just meaningless sound, the future of the genre will start to look pretty grim.

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